We got our start training Service Dogs not by hanging a shingle and proclaiming that we were Service Dog Trainers, rather by request. We were professional dog trainers with many years of experience, but we had never trained a Service Dog when a local woman contacted us. She stated that she had found nothing but dead ends in her attempt to find an organization or trainer to assist her.
“Can you train a Service Dog for me? Pam asked.
“I don’t know. What do you want the dog to do?” I replied.
I felt confident that we could train a dog to perform the behaviors Pam needed. Additionally, we would be able to provide the high standard obedience training that she hardly mentioned, but which I knew would be essential for a Service Dog.
When Pam arrived for our initial consultation, I perceived her as gray. She seemed lifeless as she sat next to her 72 year old father who, I’m certain, didn’t think he would be spending his retirement years driving his 50-something daughter around because she was unable to negotiate the world outside of her well bunkered down home without him. He didn’t seem convinced that a dog was going to change that condition. After our conversation, I didn’t know if Pam’s life would change, but I did know that we could train a dog to her needs. Only time would tell if it would “work.”
That was our start training Service Dogs. Still, even as we saw Pam’s independence, self-confidence and tranquility grow; we did not hang the Service Dog shingle. However, based on her reports, Paden had changed her life beyond her wildest dreams. After several months Pam called to ask if I had any paperwork she could distribute about our training services.
“Who wants to know?” I asked.
“I have begun working with the local Army Reserves. They host Yellow Ribbon events for the troupes returning from Iraq. Many of those soldiers may experience PTSD, even if they don’t feel that way, now. I share with them my experience with Paden so that if they, or a buddy, feels they could benefit from a Service dog, they have at least heard about it.”
Pam was a highly educated person. She was a Registered Nurse, but could no longer practice due to her disability. She had a Master’s degree in Divinity and was enrolled in graduate classes to become a licensed counselor. She had hooked up with the Army Chaplain who oversaw the counselor duties of the Yellow Ribbon events. He had invited her to speak with the reservists about her experience.
Rather than just printing information about our professional dog training services – which at the time didn’t include Service Dog work – I asked Pam if we could attend one of the Yellow Ribbon events.
As we drove to the community college where the next event was being held, I called Pam to let her know we were going to be a few minutes late. When we arrived, we struggled to find a parking place, so I made a second call. Pam didn’t answer, so Robert said he’d go into the building and have a look around.
“There’s no way Pam’s in that building,” Robert said when he returned.
“She’s in there, I spoke with her on the phone!”
“There’s no way. That building is jam packed with a few hundred, young, buff men,” Robert responded.
I knew exactly what he meant. Pam suffered from extreme PTSD due to sexual assault. When we first went in a public restaurant to practice with her dog, I suggested the table we should request. It was tucked in a corner where her Doberman Pincher would have plenty of room but be well out of the way of any foot traffic.
“I can’t sit there, that table is way too close,” She informed me as she discretely pointed towards the table next to the one I recommended.
There, a kind looking man with graying hair was having a meal with who I assumed was his wife. They were cordially chatting as they ate their meal. I didn’t see “MONSTER!” But, I could tell that no amount of coaxing would help Pam sit that close to a “strange man.”
Based on our understanding of Pam’s condition, I understood why Robert thought Pam couldn’t possibly be inside that building. But, after another call and confirmation of the door we should enter, I found Pam encircled by six or seven military trained guys. She was smiling and actively engaged in conversation with the men who seemed drawn to her handsome Dobe and the words she was speaking. Pam was no longer gray. She was pink.
With Paden at her side, Pam continued to improve. She was driving independently, and even traveled 350 miles south to attend court where she would be in the same room as the individual who had assaulted her. She proudly reported to me that she drove alone and stayed in a motel by herself, with Paden at her side.
As a biologist who worked in Corporate America for 20 years, having scientifically designed data to support results is important to me. But, sometimes merely seeing is believing. Since training Paden for Pam back in 2003 we have worked with dozens of clients, most of whom present with a psychiatric disability. I now know that partnering with a highly trained Service Dog and receiving ample instruction on how to maintain the dog at the standards necessary for continued support, an individual with a psychiatric disability can not only gain independence, but in many cases the severity of their condition is so significantly reduced that when their dog is ready to retire, they no longer require a Service Dog to live a fulfilled, independent life.
So, yes, in my near 20 years of experience, I can truthfully say “it works.”
In Memory of Pam Vollmer & Service Dog Paden
We miss you.