By Gabe Licht
MAPLE PLAIN, MN Four months ago, nine Lab puppies were born in Dana Kittok’s living room.
They went on to the Federal Prison Camp, Duluth to be raised as part of the Can Do Canines service dog program.
One of them, Vader, has returned to her home to be fostered.
“With all the prison dogs, they like to get them out into communities to experience things other than prison walls,” Kittok said. “We’ve taken him to the grocery store, basketball games, and doctor appointments. We take him everywhere we go so he gets a wide variety of sights, smells and people.”
Vader rejoined the Kittoks in mid-January and will be with them until March 3.
He’s been well-received in the community.
“They say, ‘Oh, he’s so cute,’” Kittok said. “Otherwise, they’re inquisitive about what he’ll be trained for.”
Socialization is good for Vader at this point in his training. However, service dogs should not be bothered when they are working; neither should their handlers.
Vader has responded well to the attention he has received.
“He does really well,” Kittok said. “Some puppies are jumpers. He’s pretty calm. He’ll sit and wait until you come to pet him. He’s not afraid of anyone.”
He does have one fear, though.
“His fear is the parking lot,” Kittok said. “I don’t know if it’s the cars or open spaces or what. The minute we walk out the door at Coborn’s, he sits. He doesn’t like to go into the parking lot. We use a squeaky toy to distract him.”
Kittock had some help with parking lot training when she fostered a year-old Lab named Quickly for eight days.
“She was a good leader for Vader,” Kittok said. “We did a lot of parking lot work. Vader would follow Quickly.”
Vader also tried to teach Quickly a thing or two.
“Vader will sit right by me as I use my hairdryer,” Kittok said. “Quickly was afraid of it and wanted no part of it. I’m assuming her puppy raiser doesn’t use a hairdryer.”
As a foster, Kittok’s job is to help the Can Do Canines in training get as accustomed to different sensations as possible.
“The more things you can introduce them to, the better,” Kittok said. “Anything that makes a noise or has a smell, they want you to do.”
Judging by Vader’s calm demeanor, Kittok thinks Vader may serve as an autism assist dog.
Can Do Canines offers four other types of assistance dogs: hearing, mobility, diabetes, and seizure.
Vader won’t be assigned a duty until he’s at least 1 year old and goes through final training.
“(Final training) more intense and they’ll determine what he’s going to do,” Kittok said.
Between now and then, Vader will spend more time with a puppy raiser in the prison and another foster home or two, as will his siblings.
“There’s another opportunity to foster one of them,” Kittok said. “Hopefully, we get picked. If not, I understand.”
She has enjoyed being a part of the Can Do Canines program and encourages others to give it a try.
“I just think it’s a great opportunity,” Kittok said. “If people want to be a part of it, it’s a feel-good story. If you like dogs and have the time to invest in it, great. You can foster a dog for a week. It’s very rewarding. We love it.”