Post by Nancy Fierer, SSD’s director
The Assistance Dogs International North American Trainer’s Conference, hosted by Pacific Assistance Dogs Society (PADS) in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, was wonderful. It was full of diverse material with something interesting for everyone. PADS arranged for the conference to be held at the Rosemary Heights Retreat Center just outside Vancouver. We had wonderfully comfortable beds, great food, and beautiful grounds for walking.
Many attendees arrived on Sunday evening (Oct. 6) to settle in, and there was a dinner and later a wine and cheese reception. It was great to see old friends and greet new ones. In addition to me, there were three other people representing SSD at the conference: Amanda, our training coordinator; Becky, our puppy coordinator; and Susan, our volunteer extraordinaire. SSD Julia, one of our yellow lab breeding females, also came along.
On Monday morning, we had a great session about courthouse dogs. Celeste Walsen Ellen O’Neill-Stephens, and CCI Molly B gave a wonderful presentation about what they do, how it works, and some of the wonderful successes they have had. Kim Gramlich with PADS Caber from the Delta Police Department spoke about the use of a specially trained dog in police-based victim services. The dog provides emotional support and aid during crisis intervention and response. The dog is a very effective tool, often giving “permission” for emotions that are under the surface, which allows the healing process to begin. This was a different type of facility placement from an ADI program than I had seen before. I found this session to be very informative and professional.
The women from the Courthouse Dog Foundation stress how careful and thorough the training and placement must be for courthouse dogs because these dogs are now part of making case law to smooth the way for future courthouse dogs. There are now fifty of these facility courthouse dogs working in twenty-one states. The third part of this session concerned the placement of facility dogs by PADS in a child protection center. Here again, professionalism was stressed. Margaret Hicks, PADS training manager did another great job with this final presentation.
After lunch, Susquehanna Service Dogs “Make the Right Match,” a presentation about matching people with dogs. Rebecca Lamb, our puppy coordinator, began by discussing the extensive process each potential puppy raiser must go through before we match the puppy with the raiser family. I gave a brief overview of the application process for people who are applying for service dogs, targeting the areas where we gather information for the future match, as well as information to measure how well the service dog team is doing six months after placement. Amanda Nicholson, our training coordinator, talked about the process of matching a person with a service dog. She discussed the questions we ask each person before they meet the dogs, which are used in outcome measurements and to create a list of behaviors and tasks needed to mitigate the person’s disability. She listed all of the things we consider before matching a person with a dog, including some of the common pitfalls. We also consider the dog’s choice as well. There were many questions for us, since the information was new for some people.
Next we had breakout sessions in three areas—Diabetic Dogs Panel, Starting a Courthouse Program, and a Breeding Program Managers session. I attended Starting a Courthouse Program, since we recently placed our first courthouse dog (SSD Buster). This session was very informative, and people made specific and systematic suggestions.
The evening was another fun time. Everyone shared funny and embarrassing moments involving service dogs in their lives. Marina Hall Phillips won the prize for the funniest, and I still laugh thinking about it.
Tuesday, October 8 was a day full of serious breeding discussions. In the morning sessions, Marina Hall Phillips discussed the ins and outs of managing a productive and sustainable working dog breeding colony. She stress the importance of knowing your production value and the significance of data integrity and phenotype, as well as what tests we need and why.
In February, SSD had hired Marina to visit our program for three days to help evaluate our needs. Much of the information in this session were things we learned from her visit and the follow-up report we received. The session was a comprehensive overview and a great reminder for us to help keep us on track. This was an awesome presentation!
That afternoon, Marina moderated a panel discussion with presenters from PADS, SSD, Indiana Canine Assistant Network (ICAN), and British Columbia Guide Dogs. The audience had lots of questions.
In the evening, the potential males from PADS were assessed. We discussed the issue of looking at the dog as an individual vs. the big picture. How much weight is given to the individual and what other important considerations need to be taken based on the dog’s pedigree? We also discussed the importance of weighing the dog’s faults and merits and not letting “perfect” be the enemy of “good.” Finally, we looked at pre-breeding management of broods and studs. It was a long but interesting exercise.
Wednesday, October 9 brought a slide and video presentation by Joey Iverson about Behavioral Adjustment Training (BAT). The presentation showed the systematic approach to using BAT to rehabilitate dog reactivity by examining why the dog is reactive and helping the dog meet their needs in other ways. BAT is a dog-friendly application of functional analysis that gives the dogs a chance to learn to control their own comfort level through peaceful means. I really enjoyed this presentation made it clearer to me how SSD can improve the way we use BAT. I find BAT helpful for reactivity for puppies and young dogs, but not necessarily for addressing aggressive behavior.
In the afternoon, we listened to a presentation by PADS puppy raising supervisor Heather Kidd on Footfall Techniques. She came up with the idea after working with her horses. She feels that if you teach the pup efficient footwork as puppies, then they will be able to become more confident as adults. They are able to move more efficiently and also be more confident that their feet will move them where they need to go in times of stress. Heather demonstrated that confidence in a wonderful video of a PADS dog and a ramp. I think the footfall techniques are something that SSD will start teaching. It’s easy, fun, and may be very helpful in the future.
We then had a hands-on workshop with BAT and footfall techniques, which was nice for the last day.