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.