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North Hills Monthly

Local Organizations Training Service Dogs to Help those with Special Needs

Nov 30, 2018 12:18PM ● By Kathleen Ganster

Photo courtesy of Misty Pines Pet Company

It was a simple wish—to walk across the stage to receive his high school diploma. But for Logan McGinnis, it wasn’t that simple. Born with disabilities, walking that distance would be difficult. When he was paired with a service dog from Canine Service Pals, however, that was his one wish.

“No pressure there,” joked Ivy Fodor, president of the nonprofit and owner of Parkway Pet Lodge. 

Canine Service Pals (CSP) was started in 2016 to pair rescue dogs with children with disabilities. The idea came out of a conversation between Fodor, trainer Dan Grachen, and Bob Capon, manager of the kennel.

“The three of us were talking about how we could change the life of a child and a dog at the same time,” Fodor said. The plan went into action almost immediately, with the trio teaming up with a doctor who worked with children with disabilities and with the Beaver County Humane Society. 

Reese was the service dog paired with Logan to help him reach his goal. And reach it he did—Logan walked in front of an audience of more than 1,000 people to get his diploma from Armstrong School District in May 2017, thanks to assistance from Reese. 

The pairing was one of two that Canine Service Pals has done in their short existence. Since the three founders have other full-time jobs, everything is donation-driven, whether through costs or time. Fodor said the third dog will be paired with a young lady just in time for Christmas on December 15.  

“It takes about $20,000 to train a dog when all is said and done,” Fodor said, adding that it can take up to two years for training. After a puppy is selected, it lives with a ‘training family’ who volunteers their time. Grachen works with the family and when a child is paired with the dog, his or her family also becomes part of the training. 

After months and months of training, the dog goes home with the child. 

“They still have to have ongoing training,” said Fodor. “These are working animals, and the training never really stops.” 

Is it worth all this effort? In a promotional film for the CSP program, Logan said of Reese, “She’s part of my soul.”

Helping others was also the impetus behind Perfect Fit Canines, Inc. Susan and James Wagner loved dogs, and since James worked in the autistic community, the couple decided to meld the two together to train service dogs. They started the nonprofit in 2009 and placed their first dog in 2010.

“We immediately found what we were looking for in a puppy—all the checkmarks were checked,” said Susan Wagner. “When the breeder heard about what we were doing, she loved the idea so much that she donated another puppy.” 

Perfect Fit now has 17 dogs in various stages of training that are housed with numerous host families. This includes seven dogs that are living with students from the University of Pittsburgh through the Pitt Scholars Club. 

Perfect Fit has also expanded the scope of the project. Since some dogs are better suited for owners with different needs, Wagner says that they now also specialize in PTSD service dogs, cardiac and seizure alert dogs, and animal-assisted play therapy dogs.

Perfect Fit Canines’ trainers work closely with the trainer families and those selected to be paired with a service dog. “We take our cues from the dogs when we are matching them with families,” she said. Dogs have been paired with owners as far as Texas and Florida, although most are placed in the Greater Pittsburgh area. 

Since it takes approximately two years for training, the need always outweighs the availability of the service dogs. “It takes time to train the dogs and you can’t rush it,” Wagner said. 

Perfect Fit Canines also participates in local community activities. After the recent shootings at the Tree of Life Synagogue, they partnered with Threadbare Cider in hosting service dogs for an event. 

“We know the great gift of comfort will be provided by these dogs and are happy to share that with the community,” Wagner said.

At Misty Pines Pet Company, the staff helps people train their own dogs. The first step is for the client to obtain a prescription from their doctor, and then select a puppy or dog. “If people ask our advice for choosing a dog or puppy, we can offer suggestions,” said trainer Jeff Woods. 

He added that they invite people to visit the center on Saturdays when many of the service dog training sessions are held so that people can see firsthand the types of dogs involved plus the amount of work that that training entails. 

According to Woods, each service dog completes three steps: obedience and service training, passing a Canine Good Citizen test and a public access test. Dogs must have a minimum of 120 hours of schooling over at least a 6-month time span, as well as at least 30 hours of outings in public places. 

“It takes a lot of work, and I joke that the hardest part is training the human,” said Woods. “It works best when the whole family is involved, and to see the results is extremely rewarding.”