While Austin as a whole is a dog-friendly place, we often don’t think about the working dogs in our beloved city. But the canines at Service Dogs, Inc. are changing the lives of their humans by giving them back their independence.
Sheri Soltes, founder and president of Service Dogs, Inc., started the organization in 1988. Previously a trial lawyer, Soltes decided to leave her practice to build the organization because of her love for animals. She made the transition after reading an article about shelter dogs that helped people with disabilities.
“I’ve always been the kind of person that wants to rescue every animal,” Soltes says. “And [the article]lit a fire in me to get dogs that other people threw away and train them to help people who are often marginalized. The person helps the dog and the dog helps the person, so it’s 50 percent on each end of the leash.”
It’s no easy task, though, and the dogs selected spend months in training before earning the official title as a Service or Hearing Dog. Hundreds of hours of training are used to ensure that this is the right path for the dog, and it’s excited and willing to do the job.
The animals in the program are both shelter and “career change” dogs from Guide Dogs for the Blind. A career change happens when a dog is on the path to become a Guide Dog, but has a personality trait that isn’t the best fit for the program, such as getting distracted by other animals.
However, Becky Kier, director of training at Service Dogs, Inc., pointed out that if a dog isn’t the right fit for someone with a visual impairment, it could still potentially be trained as a Service Dog.
“It works out really well for both of our organizations because they want their dogs to go on and have a job, and we’re able to give the dogs a second chance to have a working life,” Kier says.
When it comes to the shelter animals, a dog must have just the right temperament to be eligible for the program. When choosing a dog, Kier looks for dogs between the ages of one and two that are confident but not overly excited. Kier said she’ll typically look at about 1,000 shelter dogs before she picks one for the program.
One dog named Excalibur was adopted into the program from what used to be Town Lake Animal Shelter. Excalibur was eventually placed with Ray McCoy. McCoy has a rare disease that causes spinal cord tumors, which limit his range of motion and can cause instant blackouts.
One of the ways that McCoy can find relief is by soaking in a hot bath. On one particular occasion, McCoy fainted while he was reaching to turn the water off from the filling tub. When he awoke, Excalibur was dragging him from the tub by his ankle. Fortunately, McCoy was able to roll out of the tub with Excalibur’s help. And without being told, Excalibur went and retrieved McCoy’s cell phone.
What makes this story even more incredible is that Excalibur was terrified of running water, likely due to abuse from his life before he was adopted by Service Dogs, Inc.
“Not only did he figure out what to do to save Ray, but he overcame his biggest fear to do it,” Soltes says. “And that’s because of the foundation of the relationship that’s the basis of our training. That was a moment that I’m always very proud of.”
After a dog is selected for the program, basic training starts. Generally, dogs that were adopted from shelters will stay longer in this stage, since they haven’t had the foundation of training. This stage of training allows the staff to see what a dog’s strengths are.
For example, a hearing dog will typically have more energy than a typical Assistance Dog, since they need to be on high alert in order to respond to specific sounds, such as a beeping microwave. And if it’s determined that one of the dogs isn’t a good fit, they get adopted and make a career change to a family pet.
Once basic training is complete, dogs move pretty seamlessly into advanced training. Within this stage, Service Dogs learn commands such as tug, push and retrieve, and hearing dogs begin working on sound alerts.
Service Dogs, Inc. is also starting to train courthouse dogs, where a dog learns to be completely still on a witness stand and comfort children when they are in court for abuse or other crimes.
The start of advanced training is also when the team starts to look at “matching.” This is the point when a dog gets placed with a client. Advanced training typically lasts for two to three months, and then comes team training.
Team training lasts five days, and all clients come into the facility to meet the dogs. This is a big step since the waitlist at Service Dogs, Inc. is currently over a year, and the country-wide average is three to five years.
After five days at the facility, dogs then move to home training for 13 weeks, where custom behaviors are covered and the dogs take public outings to make sure they’re comfortable in the new setting.
The training comes to an end with a Public Access Test and an official certification from Service Dogs, Inc. Of course, there’s also a three-month, six-month and yearly check-in for the life of the dog to ensure that the transition goes smoothly and skills are maintained.
While it’s difficult to fathom just how much work goes into selecting and training a single animal, the end result of seeing how impactful these dogs are makes it truly worth it for the staff.
“We are always excited to see them go do their real job,” Kier says. “For us, it’s like watching your kid go off to college. It’s bittersweet, but you don’t want them to stay at home forever. These dogs want their person. They want this life. We end up being a part of the client’s extended family as well. So, it’s like we’re welcoming the client into our family versus losing the dog.”
Of course, Service Dogs, Inc. couldn’t do this work without the help of the community, which is why every year they host the Mighty Texas Dog Walk. This 1-mile parade of dogs brings in about 10 percent of the funds the organization needs to continue its efforts.
This year is special because it’s the 20th anniversary, and the staff is hoping to break the Guinness Book of World Records for the largest group photo of dogs and owners. The current record is 108, so they’re hoping to surpass that number.
The theme this year is High School Reunion. Owners and dogs are encouraged to dress in costumes to win prizes. There will also be free samples of dog food, treats and advice from top veterinarians and dog trainers in Austin. The big day is Saturday, March 23 at the Austin American-Statesman.
For the staff at Service Dogs, Inc. it’s about bringing the community together and keeping dogs and humans active, healthy and fulfilled.
“Walking with your dog is great for both of you, because you both get fit and it enriches both of your lives,” Soltes says.