Summit woman trains service dogs for Colorado nonprofit
canine partners of the rockies fundraiser
Where: Starbucks in Dillon at 324 US-6
When: Saturday, July 23 from 9 a.m. to noon
For more information, visit www.caninepartnersoftherockies.org
Mason, a glossy, black English Lab, waits attentively with the rope in his mouth. After a long day of training, he is ready for his reward: a game of tug-of-war.
Despite his goofy demeanor, Mason is a dog of many talents. He can open doors, flip light switches, fetch water from the fridge and pay cashiers. In preparation to become a mobility assistance dog, Mason faithfully accompanies his trainer, Lyn Krueger, around Summit County.
“I have the best job,” Krueger smiles. “I get to play with dogs all day long.”
For Mason, the hours of training are all one elaborate game. He is rewarded with a treat and encouragement when he successfully follows a command.
Every day begins with a routine of sorts: Mason turns on the lights and practices some balance and agility exercises.
“The demands of being a service dog are great,” Krueger said. “He needs to be strong.”
In particular, the program looks for dogs with strong hips and backs so jumping up to flip a switch is not a problem. The dogs are also trained to be more aware of their back feet, so they can turn on a dime.
Once the six-month training is finished, the dogs are matched with mobility-impaired handlers through Denver-based nonprofit Canine Partners of the Rockies (CaPR). Krueger, a Karen Pryor Academy (KPA) certified training partner, owns her own business in Dillon: Dogsong Animal Training and Behavior. After graduating from college and getting her veterinary technician certification, she moved up to Summit in 1978, “back when there were absolutely no traffic lights.”
Krueger owned a local T-shirt shop for 20 years, before getting involved with CaPR as a “puppy raiser,” helping prep young pups to become service dogs. Volunteers care for the animals as they would their own, taking them everywhere and attending two training classes per month. Krueger said she takes her dogs to college classes, shows and even the movies.
“We try to give them a vast array of experiences so we know how they’re going to respond,” Krueger said. “Mason likes to watch the movies.”
CaPR works with breeders and geneticists to ensure their dogs’ longevity and joint health. At first, CaPR bred their own dogs, but discovered these conditions aren’t evident until the age of two, at which time the training process has already begun.
“It’s really-time consuming to take a dog all the way through training only to discover a hip or back problem,” Krueger explained.
Her first puppy, a golden retriever named Morgan, is still working today.
She continued her work with CaPR as an apprentice, learning advanced mobility training. Krueger, executive director Angela Eaton and an apprentice are working to train service dogs at the advanced level, using a program accredited with Assistance Dogs International.
“Our dogs are not kenneled. They are treated with respect and love,” she said. “That’s what makes us unique. We don’t have to do that because the dogs live with their trainers.”
WORKING FROM THE CHAIR
Krueger spends most of each training session working from an electric wheelchair, so the dogs become accustomed to it. She recalled a wheelchair-bound man first taught her to drive it, popping wheelies while she slowly made her way up a steep ramp.
“It’s hard to get around,” she said. “Everywhere has hills here.”
Krueger helps match the dogs with their handlers, making sure they’re trained to work together before they leave. She said she receives several applications; some new handlers, and some who had a service dog previously.
“You need to make sure the dog is bonding with their partner,” she said. “Dogs are social animals. It’s really important to me to make sure that connection takes place.”
When the two meet, Krueger said it’s nothing short of magic.
“There’s something that happens. It’s amazing,” she said. “They make the transition and think, ‘this is my home. This is why I’m doing what I’m doing.’”
In one case, CaPR matched a dog with a Denver man who became a quadriplegic at the age of 19 when his C4/C5 vertebrae were damaged after he was injured in a road rage incident. Now, he owns his own home and drives his own van. Another service dog recipient, a speech pathologist in Grand Junction, drives her car to work four days per week, despite her limited mobility.
“It’s amazing how some people can be really independent,” Krueger said. “For me, that’s really the inspiration.”
Dogs that don’t have the right temperament or joint health to work as a mobility service dog assist in the classroom or on the slopes. One dog in training, Alma, had too high of a prey drive to be a service dog, so she was trained in avalanche rescue instead.
Another dog, Ike, works in a special needs classroom. When one child threw a temper tantrum, the dog quickly approached and put his head on his shoulder, diffusing the situation in a matter of seconds.
“They’re really well trained,” Krueger said. “So if mobility work is not their calling, we can find another job for them.”
CaPR is hosting a fundraiser at Starbucks in Dillon on Saturday, July 23, to help cover training costs. CaPR will also offer a photo-op with a service dog for a small donation.
“The most important thing is making sure he loves to work and loves to learn,” Krueger said, giving Mason a treat. “It’s a lot of training, what the dog brings to the table, and a little bit of magic.”
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