Tuesday, November 26, 2019

SSD Gannett Makes the Impossible Possible

My name is Kristin Livelsberger and my partner is SSD Gannett. We just completed Team Training in October 2019. It was an intensive three-week program where Gannett and I trained as a team along with 5 other teams. It was a valuable, inspiring, and mind-blowing experience! It was amazing to personally witness the positive impact each dog so quickly had on their partners in those first three weeks. Susquehanna Service Dogs often says that they change lives! It sounds dramatic and positive but yet doesn’t even scratch the surface of what a positive impact a service dog can make in someone's life. In truth, yes Susquehanna Service Dogs does change lives but in reality, as I witnessed, they save them!

Here’s my story:

The day I first met Gannett, she literally gave me a hug and stole my heart. I later found out we were matched. A month and a half later we were reunited at Team Training. Gannett saw me and got so happy that she gave me a hug. She remembered me! Gannett and I bonded quickly. We learned how to work together. I saw huge changes in the other teams during Team Training. However, it didn’t totally hit me how much the experience changed me until it was over. I think part of that was because, during Team Training, I was dealing with some health issues and I worried about whether or not I would get through and complete the training. The fact that I made it through without having a major health crisis or hospitalization is truly a testimony to the change that was starting to happen in my life. It is all because of SSD Gannett! 

SSD Gannett is 100% pure love, joy, positive energy, and motivation! She motivated me every day! She gave me hope and peace. She distracted me from my pain and with all the tasks she had learned to do, she made the impossible possible for me to do! As a result, my confidence grew! My limitations are no longer a barrier to being more independent. This is huge! To go from being told what is and isn’t possible for a tetraplegic to do, to being able to do things I was told I would never be able to do. During Team Training, Gannett and I were proving them wrong! It was hard to really process all of this at the time.

Since Team Training ended, SSD Gannett has accompanied me to multiple medical appointments.  Having Gannett with me kept my stress level down, which helped me stay focused and allowed me to communicate better. SSD Gannett also made it possible to go into the appointment by myself.  Being able to do things by myself is a huge step forward for me. The other major difference in having Gannett with me when I am out in public is that, for the first time in a decade since my spinal cord injury, I feel like I am no longer invisible. I feel like I’m a part of life again. This sounds strange but for a decade I have had doors literally slammed on me by people who swore they didn’t see me. I have had people talk to others around me and never acknowledge that I was there. This happened so often. This was a very harsh consequence for me, a super outgoing, fun-loving disabled person, to endure. This left me feeling very lonely and disconnected from the world. The only exception was the senior population and children. Now, when I go out, everyone sees me! People smile at me and make eye contact. Because of SSD Gannett, I exist again. People treat me like a valued member of the human race!

SSD Gannett has given me the gift of getting my life back and allowing me to be more independent with my care. As a result, this has given my family permission to live their lives as well. My daughters whom are both in college; have both said that they feel relief knowing that Gannett is with me and they feel less guilty about being away from home. My parents are going out more and not having to constantly be around to help me. This is very huge! My family has piece of mind with Gannett near me! She’s able to get help when necessary and fulfill many tasks that I no longer have to depend on others to do. SSD Gannett does so much for me and she loves helping and learning new things. She keeps adding tasks to her list of things she can do. There is so much possibility now that I have Gannett. She has learned to open doors for me but in so doing she’s opened the door to reclaiming my life and allowing my family to do the same.

SSD Gannett is an amazing dog and there was a lot of time and hours spent training Gannett and cultivating the motivation and talents that she possesses, making her the awesome incredibly helpful dog she is today. All the Susquehanna Service Dogs staff, trainers, puppy raisers, volunteers, and generous donors make all things possible for me and many others to live full, meaningful, and the most independent lives possible! Susquehanna Service Dogs is an incredible organization. They have been wonderful to work with, and all the care and dedication and commitment to change lives is proved by these remarkable dogs. Thank you for not only changing lives but saving mine!

Friday, October 11, 2019

Working 9-5

Guest post by Becky Dombrowsky, puppy raiser

What does a typical day look like for SSD Lucky? On most days, he comes to work with me.

Our mornings start at 7 am when my alarm goes off. He sleeps in a crate in my bed room right now because he’s still a young puppy. When he gets older, he’ll learn how to sleep in a dog bed at night. We head outside so he can “get busy,” and then he has breakfast. We play until we’re ready to leave for work.

Our commute is about 40 minutes. Lucky is now old enough to ride in the car without a crate. (When puppies are little, SSD has them ride in a crate in the car to help them settle in the car more easily and to keep them out of trouble. Lucky rides in my backseat or in the back of my SUV. He’s not quite big enough yet to jump in and out of the car on his own, since his bones and hips are still growing. Eventually, he’ll learn the cue to get in and out on his own.

When we arrive at the Capitol Building in Harrisburg, we park in the garage beneath the building, head for the nearest elevator, and find a place for Lucky to potty. Before entering any public space, Susquehanna Service Dogs requires that dogs be given a chance to take care of their business. Since I work in the city, Lucky’s options are limited, and he often has to use a small patch of grass near a busy road.

As we approach the Capitol, we have to walk past a giant fountain. Lucky loves to swim, so it’s tempting to investigate the splashing water. We enter then building and head to the mail room to pick up the day’s mail. The curved stairs on the way present a challenge for Lucky. There are only 10 steps, but because they’re curved rather than straight, they appear different to him. Lucky has a hard time walking in a slow, straight path and often turns himself around or just runs up them. I plan to continue trying to make this set up stairs a positive experience.

While I sort the mail, Lucky lies under the desk and ignores anyone who opens the door to the office. His focus remains on me as I load the electric mail opener that zips letter through a conveyor belt and slices them open.

The rest of Lucky’s day varies day by day. He spends a lot of time in my cubicle, either hanging out in his crate or under my desk. He has bones and toys he can chew on, but he spends a lot of time snoozing. When I need to run paperwork to offices throughout the Capitol, Lucky usually tags along, giving him a chance to go outside. He has gained all kinds of experiences. He’s walked by protesters and loud drums in the rotunda. He attends meetings and lies under the table, only interrupting with the occasional puppy dream whimper.

I am very thankful for the opportunity to take Lucky to the office. He is the second dog I’ve raised in this office, and it’s a great training opportunity for him.

It has also been a positive experience for my coworkers. When I first started bringing a dog to work with me, my neighboring coworker was afraid of dogs. Over time, she began asking to say hello to the dog, and a few months later, she welcomed under her desk.

A couple of my coworkers wanted to share their experiences:

“Having a service dog in training in our office has been a really unique and positive experience. I’ve never worked with service dogs in any capacity before, so this has been a great opportunity for me to learn about the process and see it in action. Lucky is the first service dog puppy we’ve had in the office and it has been fantastic to see his growth and progress every week. He brings so much joy to our work space, even when he’s having a rough day, and he can always make us laugh or provide a soft head to pet when our workday is particularly stressful. I’m very grateful to work with an SSD volunteer!”

“Having a service dog in training in your office is a cool experience because you’re indirectly helping the dog become a working dog that will one day help someone who really needs it. Plus, being in an environment that is constantly changing and sometimes stressful, a dog is helpful to ease the tension in the room. Since moving away from my dogs, I do not have that stress reliever to come home to, so it’s nice to have one at work with me. Who would not want a dog as a coworker?”

Help Susquehanna Service Dogs train more dogs like SSD Lucky to become life-changing service dogs! Donate to build a new training center, where SSD’s dogs in advanced training can learn specific tasks to support their future partners: http://crowdrise.com/susquehanna-capital-campaign

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Puppy Swap for Success

Different raiser, different house, different routine—it’s a puppy swap! SSD Lucky spent a week with puppy raisers Revenda and Brian Bierley to broaden his experiences. These puppy swaps are an important part of Lucky’s early socialization, helping him learn to work with other people and settle in to a new environment. After all, he’ll one day live at our kennel during the week while he’s in advanced training, and then he’ll ultimately go live with his new partner.

Revenda chronicled Lucky’s time with them:

“When he arrived, SSD Lucky was extremely excited to find SSD Russet, a 16-month-old golden retriever, waiting to show him the ropes. Their first introduction was typical: a lot of circling and sniffing. Lucky quickly became Russet’s sidekick and they enjoyed a lot of playtime. On occasion, Lucky’s energy surpassed Russet’s patience, and Russet took refuge in a quiet corner of the house.

Lucky’s first outing occurred the second day of his puppy swap when he visited the Carlisle Library. The library is a great place to take young service dogs in training because it offers a wide array of opportunities to practice newly learned cues along with new experiences.

Lucky practiced down-stays in the book aisles and went under chairs and tables. We also found some unique surfaces for him to stand on, practiced walking on stairs, and every worked on his elevator skills. Lucky will practice these behaviors in many different environments as he continues his journey to become a service dog.

He did such a lovely job practicing his newly learned cues at the library that we added a short walk around town. We kept the walk short, but it gave him the opportunity to experience the noise of traffic, crossing a crosswalk, and walking up cement steps.

On Friday, he went swimming with Russet. They enjoyed romping around the pool, chasing each other, and retrieving toys from the pool. Lucky quickly found his inner water dog and is well on his way to becoming an accomplished swimmer.

On the weekend, Lucky went on an outing with Russet. We took both dogs to Kohl’s, where Lucky (and Russet) practiced loose leash walking, down-stays, and “under.” This time, Lucky has the added distraction of working in close proximity to another service dog in training. This was a very successful outing, and Lucky was unfazed by Russet.

Toward the end of our time at Kohl’s, two small children asked to say hello to Lucky. He did a nice job keeping all four paws on the floor, even as his little tail was wagging a mile a minute.*

On Monday, Lucky went on one more outing with us before his scheduled return to his raiser. He was a rock star at T.J.Maxx. For a 3-month-old puppy, he showed off some impressive loose leash walking. I heard multiple people commenting on how well he was doing. We also took the opportunity to practice “under” and down-stays, as well.”

It sounds like Lucky gained some valuable experiences! He’ll continue to build skills like these over the next 15-18 months.

*Note: Even though the public is not supposed to pet service dogs, we train all of our dogs to be able to handle greetings. They’re trained to keep all four paws on the floor and stay focused on the person holding the leash. It’s all part of their training to ignore distractions.

Help build a new training center for our dogs in training! Donate here: https://www.crowdrise.com/susquehanna-capital-campaign  

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Service Dog Training at the Elizabethtown Fair

Guest post by Becky Dombrowsky, puppy raiser and volunteer

One of the reasons I love raising a puppy is it encourages me to go out and experience new things. Last year, Matt and I moved from Harrisburg to Elizabethtown, PA to be closer to his job. In that time, we have explored some of the restaurants in the area, but that is about it. I was excited to learn that Etown has its own fair!

Matt and I had planned to attend on Thursday night with Lucky, but the weather was supposed to get into the 90s. Friday’s forecast was much cooler, so that was the better choice.   

Not having been to the fair before, I wasn't sure what to expect. Assuming there would be all sorts of smells and foods, I knew I needed to make sure to bring along good power treats to keep Lucky's attention. We packed dog food as usual, but I also had some other dog treats plus small pieces of hot dog. I like using hot dogs because the juice gets onto the kibble and turns the kibble also a higher value treat. Last I grabbed a travel bowl and water, and off we went.

We decided to pay $5 to park closer to the fair. I was amazed by all the people, rides, food, games, music, animals and smells! Since we didn't know our way around, we headed into the fair and started exploring. Click-treat, click-treat, click-treat. And then it started: "Excuse me, can I pet your puppy?" 

At this point, I can choose to say yes or no, based on Lucky’s behavior. I picked yes, and asked them to pet him behind his harness when all four feet are on the ground. Lucky practices a lot of greetings when he’s in the office with me, so I was confident he could be successful with the greeting. It went well, we took two steps, and someone else asked to pet him. I realized I had started down a rabbit hole and we had just became the most exciting thing at the fair. We continued with a couple more greetings; it was nice for Lucky to practice greetings with younger children. Greeting with little kids can be tough for a puppy because the kids are so much closer to the puppy than an adult. We then made a quick exit and headed for the food.

While Matt ate the amazing fair foods, Lucky and I found a seat and listened to the music coming from the stage. We worked on "down" and hanging out as the sun set.

From there, we decided to head over to the animal section. The fair had many farm animals, which Lucky had never seen before. First up was the sheep. Lucky wasn't so sure about him, and we worked up to being a couple feet away. 

Lucky did get startled with the sheep baa-ed at him. I decided to make this less stressful on both animals and picked Lucky up as we walked through the rest of the animal area to also meet a cow, baby ducks, and a goat. 

It’s important to remember the animals at the fair had limited space to move away if they weren't comfortable, so I did my best to keep Lucky’s exposures short.

On the way out of the fair, there were far less people and it made walking by all the games and rides a lot easier. 

I think the night was a success. I look forward to getting to build Lucky's confidence with different animals as he grows. 

Help Susquehanna Service Dogs train more dogs like SSD Lucky! Donate to build a new training center: https://crowdrise.com/susquehanna-capital-campaign 

Monday, August 26, 2019

A Service Dog Makes an Impact on an Entire School

Guest post by Christi Henry, one of SSD Eagle’s handlers in Lampeter-Strasburg School District

Eagle’s impact on our school community has exceeded our wildest expectations. We knew his impact would be positive for our students, but we just could not imagine how much positive influence his presence would have on our entire school building.

Eagle cannot wait to get to school in the morning, and from the moment he walks in the door, he brings smiles to all who see him. When staff members hear his tags jingle, they come out to say hello and give him some morning love. Our custodians always have something special in their pockets for him, and the office staff loves when he lays down in the sunny spot in the middle of the office. He brightens everyone’s day and has helped to connect us as a staff in new ways. 

Just before the students come in, Eagle dons his vest and prepares for work. He waits at the doors with a handler during arrival to greet the kids. Kids squeal with delight to see him in the morning. Our principal has found that students who are reluctant to come to school are eager to see Eagle. The principal will work with the students and parents and have Eagle at the doors to help them transition more smoothly from home to school.

Throughout the school day, Eagle has a busy schedule. He begins with a morning walk-through of the building with the principal, and he stops in each classroom to wish everyone a good day. He has learned to give the kids a fist bump with his nose. The kids LOVE to get a fist bump from Eagle.

One of Eagle’s favorite jobs is working with small groups of striving readers, inspiring and motivating them to work hard. He snuggles in to listen to them read. One student practices reading jokes all week and then meets with Eagle and a handler on Friday for joke time in the snuggle chair. This student works SO hard to be ready for joke time.  Many of his jokes are about dogs. What dog keeps the best time?  A watch dog!

Eagle also works with our students who need emotional support, reminding them that will-power and self-control are skills that everyone needs to practice. He demonstrates by not touching a kibble placed on his paw. He drools to show them that it is hard work.  His presence in the room is calming, and snuggle time is a huge reward.

Eagle visits with our students in the life skills class each day. Students work hard to earn a golden ticket to help care for Eagle’s needs. Students learn to gently brush Eagle and fill his water dish for him. A favorite among the kids is double-leash walking Eagle.  One student who uses a wheelchair for mobility was struggling with her motivation to practice with her walker. Walking ten feet was a huge struggle.  With Eagle by her side, she is now walking laps around the whole third grade wing!

Eagle works with small groups of students, including our speech and language, learning support, and guidance groups. His presence encourages not only hard work and perseverance, but also conversation and self-reflection. When Eagle is present, students are willing to try harder, open themselves up to new experiences, and discuss topics that may be hard to face. He attends meetings with families, meets with the principal and guidance counselor when they work 1-1 with students, and even attends parent-teacher conferences.

Eagle also works in classrooms with large groups of students. Everyone loves when he hops up into a chair to see what’s going on. He reinforces classes of students who have earned time with him for great behavior. He attends pizza parties and movie days, and he is always available to educate group of students about his work in our school.

He participates in large group activities and attends special events in the performing arts center with the whole school. Sometimes, he is the star of the show, coming on stage to demonstrate and inspire good behavior. He is an integral part of our school, and everyone looks forward to seeing him at all of our school and district-wide activities and events. He participates in open houses, family nights, and school board meetings. 

In our district, our dogs also work together. In crisis situations, all of our dogs come together to assist with grief counseling. They also participate in mental health education activities and support students in emotional crisis throughout the school district. The dogs are able to help students calm and settle in order to move forward in the school day.  

Our dogs also have time to be together socially. Eagle enjoys pulling up to Gabby’s building for Wednesday morning play-dates with Gabby and Maya.  They run, tumble, and play ball together. This summer, we welcomed Monarch to the team.

At the end of each day, Eagle gets out of his vest and shakes off his hard work. He loves to run down the hallways, chasing a ball or stuffed toy. He cracks everyone up with his slipping and sliding around the corners. 

Eagle’s presence and hard work in our school has brought us all tremendous joy. We are grateful to have the opportunity to share each day with him. He is truly loved and his impact on our community is immeasurable.

Help Susquehanna Service Dogs train more dogs like SSD Eagle. Donate to build a new training center for SSD.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

SSD Lucky Had How Many New Experiences?

Wait! Don’t read this blog post if you haven’t already read yesterday’s post about SSD Lucky and his new experiences.

If you already read yesterday’s post, thank you! How many different experiences did you count from our tale of Lucky’s weekend?

Here are the ones we counted:
  1. New house
  2. Sleeping in the guest room
  3. Crate located at the foot of the bed
  4. Can’t see his raiser from his crate
  5. Two other dogs in the house
  6. Sounds from other dogs at night
  7. Yard sale (This could probably fill up 12+ experiences alone!)
  8. Down-stays on different surfaces
  9. New children
  10. New adults
  11. Wooden deck
  12. Down the wooden open riser stairs
  13. Up the wooden open riser stairs
  14. New backyard

Look for the next post about SSD Lucky in the coming weeks! 

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Can You Count All of SSD Lucky's New Experiences?

Meet SSD Lucky! He’s two months old today, and we’re going to be following him throughout his training to become a service dog. He’s part of our Fortune Litter, born on May 21.

Lucky is being raised by Becky Dombrowsky, one of our long-time raisers. He’s the eighth dog she has raised. Do you know any of these dogs?
  • SSD Scotia, one of our former breeders
  • SSD Bridge, currently working as a balance dog
  • SSD Jade, one of our demonstration dogs
  • Raptor, a beloved pet
  • Larson, currently working as a detection dog with the United Nations
  • Lincoln, a beloved pet
  • SSD Larry, currently in advanced training

Lucky lives with Becky, her husband, Scotia, and four cats. (Yes, you can raise a puppy if you have other animals in your family!) On weekends, Larry returns from advanced training, adding another dog to the mix. Growing up with other animals is a wonderful experience for our puppies in training since we never know if their future partner will have pets.

But that’s a potential topic for the future. Today we’re going to talk about early puppy experiences.

The goal is to expose the puppies to 12 new things every day. These new things can be sights, sounds, smells, surfaces, places to potty, objects, and more. The key, though, is to make sure each experience is a positive one so the puppy builds up memories of lots of positive experiences they can draw on throughout the rest of their training.

Lucky had a busy weekend! How many different experiences can you count?

Over the weekend, Lucky went with Becky and her husband to her parents’ house for a neighborhood yard sale. They spent the night, staying in the guest room. Lucky slept in his crate, which is where he usually sleeps. However, unlike at home, Lucky’s crate was at the foot of the bed and he couldn’t see Becky. There were two other Labradors in the house, and Lucky could hear them move around the house at night, even though he couldn’t see them.

During the yard sale, Lucky practiced long down-stays, an important skill for service dogs to perfect in all environments. Since many new people stopped by the yard sale, he also worked on calm greetings with kids and adults of all ages. (Even though people aren’t supposed to pet service dogs, we still make sure our dogs learn how to properly greet people. We’ll talk about that in a future blog post.)

Perhaps Lucky’s biggest new experience happened in the backyard. Becky’s parents have a deck with wooden open riser stairs. Little Lucky calmly trotted down the stairs to the grass without a problem. Going back up was a different story. The backs of the stair were open and looked completely different. He wasn’t sure he could go back up. “From my point of view, it looked easy,” said Becky. “But from his view, it didn’t look safe or even possible to get back up on the deck.”

She let Lucky explore the stairs without any pressure to climb them, and as he got more comfortable, he walked up two steps! “We’ll continue to expose him to stairs like this as he gets older,” said Becky.

How many experiences did you count? Let us know in the comments. We’ll post the ones we counted tomorrow afternoon.  

All of these new experiences are helping to prepare Lucky to be a service dog. By law, he’ll be able to accompany his partner anywhere that’s open to the public, so he needs to be able to calmly handle and even enjoy being in many different environments.

Look for more posts about SSD Lucky in the future!

Help us build a new training center for our puppies like Lucky! Donate today: https://crowdrise.com/susquehanna-capital-campaign