BY GABE LICHT
NEW HOPE, MN Slightly more than two years after being born in Dana Kittok’s rural Maple Plain home, four Can Do Canines crossed the stage with their clients to graduate as service dogs Feb. 18.
“To see ‘my’ babies on stage at graduation with their clients filled my heart with pride,” Kittok said. “To know they took their first breath in my hands over two years ago and see the greatness they do for their clients is remarkable.”
Kittok finds satisfaction in whelping puppies for Can Do Canines.
“Mother Theresa said, ‘The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away,’” Kittok said. “I have clearly found my gift (whelping puppies) to give people their independence back.”
Four of the nine puppies that were born Oct. 20, 2014, and spent the first six weeks of their lives at Kittok’s home, have graduated from the program to do just that.
Valor and Vaughn are autism assist dogs, while Vinnie and Vegas are mobility assist dogs. All are already making a difference.
“Vegas has helped me the most with laundry and object retrieval,” client Katie Hammer said. “He loves tugging the laundry baskets and getting the clothes out of the machine. It’s kind of hilarious.”
“Vinnie helps me most with exercise and stamina so I can walk further distances,” client Kerry Houts said.
Valor and Vaughn help children overcome the challenges associated with autism.
“Having Valor there during difficult situations makes it easier for Jack, which opens up a lot of doors for us as a family,” client Jackson Wallrath’s mother Sarah Carlson-Wallrath said. “A lot of people hear what autism is, but they don’t really know. They see this happy, somewhat easygoing kid, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy for him. He works really hard and tries really hard. Having this fun-loving dog help him is so awesome, so he doesn’t have to work so hard.”
Maxim Lemesh wears a specially-designed belt that connects to Vaughn’s pack, while his parents handle the dog’s leash. If Lemesh tries to run away, a common behavior for autistic children, Vaughn anchors him until his parents can get the situation under control.
“Max has to concentrate on holding the handle that’s connected to Vaughn,” Lemesh’s mother Alena Lemesh said. “It’s a totally new feeling for him, which means it’s easier to go out and take walks around the neighborhood, or go to parks and playgrounds.”
All the dogs have been specially trained to assist their clients.
Basic training and socialization are provided by prison programs, puppy raisers, and foster homes from 2 months old to 18 months old.
“Then, they stay at the Can Do Canines facility for ‘canine college,’ and learn advanced skills, are assigned a career path, matched with a client, and placed as a new assistance dog with their new handler,” Can Do Canines Client Services Coordinator Sarah Schaff said. “From start to finish, the process takes about two years, which also allows the dog to mature and develop adult temperament traits that are necessary for assistance work.”
Dogs’ personalities and behaviors dictate their careers.
“Some dogs pick up everything, and they become mobility assist dogs,” Schaff said. “Some dogs are sound-oriented or scent-oriented, and they tend to be excellent alert dogs for hearing or diabetic-alert work. Other dogs are sensitive to when people are upset and they become ‘clingy’ to the person experiencing those emotions, so they make wondering autism assistance dogs.”
Dogs must pass the Assistance Dogs International Public Access Test.
“It is a sequence of tasks to show the handler and their assistance dog are able to function appropriately in public places, no matter what the disability and needs are,” Schlaff said. “After a team has passed the test, we generally feel secure in the client’s ability to take the dog out in public without our supervision. It’s also a milestone to celebrate the bonding and training that the teams has put so much effort into.”
Weeks after the assistance dog moves home with the client and evaluation shows the team has continued to make progress, the final certification takes place.
“Then, the teams are ready to graduate,” Schlaff said.