Friday, May 30, 2014

Changing Lives through Small Acts

Guest post by Samantha Hodge-Williams

I am writing to celebrate Nancy Fierer, a uniquely generous woman.  I will always be grateful to Nancy, who changed my life path during a critical time.

In 1997, I became suddenly ill in college with a lifelong chronic, disabling condition.  Soon after, whilst trying to support me, my mother also became disabled.  We learned about service dogs and both applied to a local Baltimore area organization.  Unfortunately, not all service dog schools are created equal, and we found ourselves with two expensive, untrained dogs from a failed organization. 

After working independently with private trainers, I contacted Nancy in hopes of completing the Susquehanna Service Dogs transfer training and certification process for each of our dogs.  Nancy agreed that we could be tested and if we performed up to the SSD standard, they would include us in the transfer training and SSD certification.  We both passed.

Before attending SSD graduation, my canine companion and new “lifeline” suddenly had liver failure and died.  Despite my determination, perseverance and lifelong optimism, I found myself so grief-stricken by this final loss that I lashed out at loved ones and everything around me.  I had reached my breaking point, feeling so lost and needing to run away.

Nancy invited me to stay with her and Robert for a few weeks, to research my options for a new successor service dog. 

I remember arriving at her house and seeing her flats of impatiens out front.  Nancy said she’d been too busy to plant any, but would be happy to “employ” me to plant the impatiens in her garden if I liked during my stay.  This small job anchored me through the darkness.  Despite my physical limitations and grief, I could leisurely do this on my own.  Rather than drifting around her home like a grieving guest or client, I felt I had a purpose.  I slowly nestled impatiens in the nooks and crevices of her trees, enjoying the shady retreat and the dirt between my fingers.  I quietly watched the staff and dogs in training, whilst watering the buds.

It is now 13 years later.  Those few weeks stand out because I know that in my grief and anger, my life could have taken a very different fork.  However, Nancy’s kind and generous welcome and work nurtured me back toward hope.  After staying at LeSentier Lane, I was able to return home and subsequently be matched with my successor dog.  SSD Aslan now lies beside me, fully retired at 13 ½ after outstanding years of reliable, joyful service. 

Thank you, Nancy, for your generous and warm welcome during my toughest time.  You restored my sense of safety and hope when it mattered the most.  I wish you and Robert all the best in your well-deserved retirement.

Samantha Hodge-Williams has been partnered with Susquehanna Service Dogs since 2000.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Will to Make a Difference

Guest post by Valerie Hodge-Williams

I am writing to celebrate Nancy Fierer and to congratulate her on her retirement.

I met Nancy at a time in my life when my world was being turned upside down, by one devastating onslaught after another. Even though we were erstwhile strangers, Nancy, supported by Robert, reached out to help my daughter Samantha and me as we grappled with our chaotic health problems and shattered lives.  She supported and encouraged us, going the extra mile in several ways, to ensure Sam and I would become successful SSD partners and teams. 

Nancy once told me that she started SSD because she became involved with dog training and realized there was an unmet need for service dogs in the Harrisburg area. She described herself as being at a point in her life (with the unfailing support of her husband Robert) where she ‘could give something back’ to the community… and so she did.  She found others with a similar interest and together they started SSD.

As I write this, I think back to the way Nancy described her experience in those three short sentences. For her it was as simple as seeing a need and doing something about it (which she continued to do, day in and day out for the next twenty years) … because she "COULD."  However, SSD would never have come into being the way Nancy describes it. It wasn’t because she COULD. Most of us are in that position, one way or another, yet nothing happens. SSD came about, not because Nancy COULD see the need and COULD do something about it, but because she WOULD.  She took the first step and then the second and kept on doing that. She had the will and therefore, slowly found a way.

When all is said and done, the total impact of Nancy’s legacy at SSD can never be accurately assessed. Even now, its two-decade ripple-effect has a life of its own, changing and transforming lives as it touches them. For example, in our own small arena, my daughter and I have each been partnered in an SSD team for the past fourteen years. We each have successor dogs. I do not think we could have continued to live independently without the help of our dogs. Consequently, the lives of those who love us and would have to care for us are improved. We are often home-bound, yet I am amazed at how many people in our local town recognize us by our service dogs and can relate stories (often ones that I have forgotten) about watching each of us work as a team.  Not only are our lives improved by the SSD dogs, but our working team always brings a smile to the faces of those surrounding us.

In conclusion, my loved ones and I have benefitted on a daily basis because of Nancy’s vision, personal effort and generosity in founding, supporting, and directing SSD for the past 20 years.  She is a powerful example of someone who not only “COULD,” but “WOULD” improve thousands of lives through service.  An example and a legacy indeed!

Nancy and Robert: With love and very best wishes to you both as you start your next adventure!

… And… once more with feeling….       Thank-you! 

Valerie Hodge-Williams has been a partner of Susquehanna Service Dogs since 2000 when she was initially partnered with SSD Spirit. Following his retirement, she was partnered with her current successor dog, SSD Phoenix. 

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Things I Learned

Guest post by Susan Tyson

I learned about Susquehanna Service Dogs and service dogs eleven years ago when I answered an ad in the Patriot News looking for puppy huggers. Several months later, SSD Trout was put into my arms as a puppy to raise.

At a seminar class the next month, I learned that the program was not let by a nebulous director but by Nancy Fierer. Then I learned that she ran the program as a full time director, but took no pay! And then I learned that the entire program was based at her home! Can you imagine a never-ending, seven-days-a-week parade of people and dogs through your home for twenty years?

Over the years, I learned that Nancy had goals and visions for the development of SSD and the service dog industry. She led, sometimes pushing and prodding, everyone toward those goals. The end result is that SSD has an international reputation for producing quality service dogs.

I learned to listen to Nancy as she discussed dog behavior, a training problem, or a people problem. I did not always agree with everything, but I did realize that she has thought long and hard about the problem, and I was always able to pull a nugget or a scrap of learning from each conversation.

I learned that Nancy has a heart of gold and truly wants to make the world a better place for others. SSD was her way of accomplishing this. The dogs are nice, but in the end, they are a tool to help someone. The real goal is to change someone’s life.

I learned that the goal of producing a service dog does more than change one life—it changes many. I am one of them, and I think that I am not alone. The dedication of so many—staff and volunteers—is a testament to Nancy’s work for SSD.

Fair winds and following seas as you and Robert travel into a new phase of your life. 

Susan Tyson has volunteered with Susquehanna Service Dogs for 11 years as a puppy raiser, part of the whelping team, and a litter raiser. She has helped with various fundraisers, given SSD demonstrations, and uses the dogs for therapy work with people in the psychiatric hospital and children with autism. She lives in apple tree country between Carlisle and Gettysburg with her husband Bill, many chickens, and a huge garden.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

A Warm Welcome Led to 12 Years as a Volunteer

Guest post by Karen (KJ) Johnston

After 12 years of volunteering with SSD, I have many happy memories of times there with Nancy. After her happy greeting on my first volunteer day when I knocked on her house door—“Oh, you came! Come with me and I’ll show you the kennel!”—to thousands of hours spent at PawsAbilities planning and weekends.

When I worked as Event Coordinator in 2007, I always appreciated the trust she showed me by placing me in charge in her absence and sending me in her place to Keystone Human Services Children and Family Services managers’ meetings.

One of my favorite days with Nancy was at the first Clicker Expo I went to with SSD in Rhode Island when we took a walk after the sessions. I enjoyed walking along the ocean cliff trail with Nancy and SSD Gideon and hearing her ideas to make SSD better. Those plans sure have come true! Nancy has a wonderful vision to train dogs to help people, and I’m glad I found Susquehanna Service Dogs and had 12 years to work with Nancy to move her dream forward. I believe my time at SSD helped to make me a better person and has helped me through a number of personal trials. So a great big “Thank you!” to Nancy for welcoming me to SSD! I have enjoyed the journey!

KJ has been an SSD volunteer for 12 years and was Event Coordinator in 2007. She lives in Liverpool, PA with her husband Tom and their labs—SSD Celia, Meto (SSD Hazel from the Tree litter), Mayhem, and Morel. She found SSD in 2002 when she wanted to learn how to train her next lab, Mabel, to be a therapy dog. She has enjoyed doing any time of work for SSD from puppy raising and sitting, whelping the Tree litter, fundraising, or any work job.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Living Independently with Our Respect Intact

Guest post by Connie Ziegler

I just want to say thank you to Nancy for starting Susquehanna Service Dogs. Without my service dog, I would be in a nursing home instead of living independently. I received SSD Dutch seven years ago. Originally, he was for balance. Over the years, things changed for both of us. I now use him for hearing work and emotional support. And now, after a year of not walking, he has given me the courage to try to walk again, so he’s doing balance work again.

He helps me get my shoes and socks off when I’m too dizzy to bend over. He alerts me to different things that he was never trained to do. I feel this is because of our bond. He loves to get the wash out of the dryer for me, open doors, and carry small packages. He has been in the hospital and rehabs with me and has kept me calm so I didn’t need to be sedated like before.

We are not usually home. SSD Dutch has given me what I needed to live my life once again and not just stay home and be afraid to go out.

I have to admit, Nancy and I may not have always seen eye to eye when it came to SSD Dutch, but last year I started to see her in a very different light.  Last year, we went to the Puppy Palace (SSD’s former space for puppy class) at the Harrisburg Mall for a brief retraining because I was having trouble with SSD Dutch when I was in my manual wheelchair. I remember starting to have a small meltdown. That day was a very rough day for me and things were not going right. That night, Nancy came to me and seemed to understand and helped me by giving me lots of good tips on what I was doing wrong. I told her at the end of the night that she really made my night and thanked her for all her help. I knew she always had good ideas, but sometimes it was just the way she said them, but that night, she was very understanding and supportive like always, and it really stuck with me.

All I have to say is, Nancy, you will be missed greatly. If it weren’t for you, who knows where some of us would be or what shape we would be in. With you starting SSD, you gave us the tools and your knowledge to live as independently as possible with our respect intact.

Connie is paired with nine-year-old SSD Dutch. They are now living in Hershey, PA.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Memories from a 19-Year SSD Volunteer

Guest post by Candi Trogner

It is hard to imagine that I have been a volunteer for SSD for 19 years. It is even harder to imagine Nancy is retiring! To me, SSD is Nancy. I remember her telling me about Zach, her wonderful Lab, and his obedience training. He did very well and she felt he could be trained to do so much more. The rest is history, as they say, and the vision of SSD was born.

I volunteered up at the kennel one day a week. It was hard for me. I did not know what I was doing and did not like some of the training techniques.  It didn’t matter because Nancy was happy to see me and she was patient and encouraging. When I could not quite put the process together with the end result of a trained service dog, she invited me to attend Team Training. It was a wonderful experience and a turning point, as I became committed to SSD and their mission. But there were also fun times—chipping dog poop out of ice in the dog runs, being chased back into the training room by wild turkeys, and taking the dogs for a walk in the forest because Nancy said the sounds and smells expanded their minds. I am lucky to have lots of great memories.

I wish Nancy and Robert a wonderful retirement in Boulder, CO with two of their children and their grandchildren.  What could be better?! She has prepared us all as we go into the future, but she will be missed.

Candi Trogner is a volunteer public trainer and does demonstrations with her dog, SSD Ajax. She is the mother of two sons and Gramme to four grandchildren. She lives with her husband and Ajax in the Harrisburg area.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

What Makes Susquehanna Service Dogs Special

Post by Nancy Fierer, Susquehanna Service Dogs’ founder and director

Susquehanna Service Dogs has a wonderful history—from that first mid-January meeting in 1993 in my living room and the placement of our first service dog in the summer of 1994 to the transition to a positive clicker training program to our first Assistance Dogs International accreditation in 2003 and much more. With hard work, wonderful staff, amazing volunteers, and luck, we have come this far—through 20 years—placing 226 service dog teams.

SSD was mentored by Canine Working Companions near Utica, NY. The director, Pat MacNamara, helped me learn what to do. They showed me how to teach Zach, SSD’s very first demo therapy interview dog, how to open a door. I was so excited, I started as soon as I arrived in the Adirondacks. Within ten minutes, Zach did it—the easiest, fastest dog I ever taught. I though, how hard can this be? It was never that easy again.

I also met my first service dog team at Canine Working Companions, and I knew we could do this. CWC has since closed, but we would not be here without their years of mentorship. Now SSD continues to mentor other Assistance Dogs International member programs.

So SSD was off and running. We became part of Tri County Easter Seal Society and after many turns, part of Keystone Human Services Children and Family Services. We found our first partner. He was a middle school student with osteogenisis imperfect and with the help of a few volunteers, we trained SSD Hope, a sweet black lab, to become his service dog, go to school with him, allow him to travel alone, grow up more independently, and graduate from high school. They were a wonderful first team. And luck, such an important part of life, was on the side of SSD. Amazingly, we had no problems, no disasters, nothing that we couldn’t easily solve. We were so lucky.

We grew and placed many service dogs, started a breeding program, hired staff, and raised money. Over all these years, the SSD family has experienced sadness and loss, triumphs and joy, and wonderful friends to the rescue, just at the right moments. We kept growing and changing.

We have had many success stories, from the boy who went to the zoo with his service dog and told the interested zoo animals that his dog was “off the menu,” to the service dog who would not leave his partner’s side even though they were at the dog park.

And then there are reports from established teams. SSD placed a service dog with an 11-year-old girl with significant psychiatric illness and autism. Her family had tried many other services and support with little success. Nothing helped until SSD Sadie came into their lives. At time, the girl was a D/F student with few friends and many meltdowns.

Each of our service dog teams trains a new task to help the bonding process and learn how to train, and together this family taught the dog to give full body pressure, which provides a significant calming effect. Immediately, the girl’s meltdowns decreased in duration and slowly decreased in frequency. And her grades improved dramatically!

This team has been together for many years, have successfully passed each Assistance Dogs International (ADI) public access test, and SSD task tests. The girl is now 16 years old. She has maintained good grades, mostly A’s, since the partnership began. Her meltdowns have gone away. She still uses Sadie for deep pressure, but to relieve stress rather than meltdowns. She also uses the dog during tests. Sadie alerts to her foot tapping, a sign of rising anxiety. The girl can then collect herself and continue. This made the entire testing experience successful.

And then there is the social part. From the beginning, it was “cool” that she had a dog in school. It immediately helped her classmates understand her better and then made her very approachable because she had a sweet black lab. SSD Sadie goes everywhere with her. Before Sadie, the girl was secluded, withdrawn, and did not participate in class or initiate conversation. With Sadie, people talked to her and she responded. Over time, she did this more and more and has blossomed into an outgoing teenager with friends.

Together, service dog teams do many small things that give each partner more independence, let each partner lead more of a typical day, month, year. This past year, we placed eighteen service dog teams, one courthouse dog, and two school facility dogs.

What else makes SSD so special? First, our volunteers and what they do for SSD. We are all part of creating these working service dog teams in tiny ways—training puppies and dogs, raising funds, spreading the word, and doing a million other tiny pieces. In our latest ADI accreditation, our evaluator told us that she has never seen such a dedicated group of volunteers.

Second, we are on the cutting edge of our field. Third, we have dedicated, motivated, and personable staff. They are smart, flexible, highly trained, and give their lives to SSD.

Many things are changing for SSD, but these things remain constant. Please think about the future and how you all help shape it. We could not do this without your help. Together we have touched each other’s lives and many others we never even knew, and we’re slowly changing the world one click at a time.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Training Tip: Keeping Your Dog Safe, Part 2

Training tip from Nancy Fierer, SSD’s founder and director

In October, I wrote about Fear and Keeping Your Dog Safe, and I would like to revisit it because I consider it so important.

Our dogs look to us for support and consistency. At Susquehanna Service Dogs, we do this through clear clicker training techniques and consistent rules and expectations in the home, as well as by providing love, food, and shelter. I know we all do these things (or strive to) and our dogs count on us for it.

But there is more to keeping your dog safe. When you’re out and about in the world with your dog in training or even with your pet—no matter where you go—you encounter many situations that can be stressful, cause fear, or actually be physically harmful for the dog.

For example, we all watch where we’re walking and if we see broken glass or a dangerous surface, we make sure our dog avoids the area. This may mean we don’t enter, we pick up our pup, or we take a detour. If we miss seeing the broken glass, the dog is at risk of getting cut. Will the dog always be cut, need a vet visit, or have permanent damage as a result? You all know the answer. Mostly likely no, but once in a while, yes.

Like with the broken glass on the ground, we need to recognize when to take action to keep our dogs safe and how exactly to do that. There are two things to keep an eye out for:
·         Fear of other dogs and animals
·         Newly developed fear or an object or situation

I’m only going to cover fear of other dogs and animals here, because I’ve already covered newly developed fears in a previous post, but here are a few extra tips. Consider going to potentially scary places for just a few minutes or looking at it from a distance. A good example is fireworks. Distance and short duration are key here. For example, don’t go downtown Harrisburg on the 4th of July with your pup to sit by the river and watch the fireworks. Prepare for success by looking for possible failure, stressors, and “danger.”

Your dog could show signs of fear around any other dog. These could be dogs in your home, from puppy class, from your neighborhood, or strange dogs. When this happens, do not allow on-leash greetings or unsupervised play, especially in smaller enclosures, and don’t allow dominant behavior, whether it’s your dog or the other dog. Remove your dog immediately and then think about the situation. Sometimes, everyone was just too excited and when all are calm, play can resume. However, if there was any fear on the part of your dog, don’t let the dogs play together again.

Ultimately, when a dog is fearful of a situation, it has two options—fight or flight. If the dog cannot leave (flight), then the only option they’re left with is fight. Do I mean a dog fight? Sometimes that may happen, but more likely, the dog will give a warning that any smart, confident dog will listen to. Your dog may resort to growling, snapping, or a hard stare. Each time your dog successfully deters the other dog, your dog is rewarded for its “aggressive” behavior. If your dog actually barks or snarls significantly, adrenaline is released, and this good feeling is a strong reinforcer that has a huge impact on your dog’s future behavior. It creates a strong reinforcement history and then next time, the dog may choose to use this aggressive, inappropriate behavior sooner. This behavior can easily become generalized and then it becomes a problem.

Don’t try to fix aggressive behavior. Simply avoid it. Keep the dog from practicing the behavior because you don’t want to make it stronger. If you have an SSD dog, this is the perfect time to ask the trainers for help, because you can reverse a little problem before it turns into a big one.

This is all part of keeping your dog safe. Remember, your dog is being fearful when they’re acting aggressively and wants to be safe.