Assistance dog group looks to veterans

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Sailor recently graduated from training to become a therapy dog. He is owned by Joy Thompson of Whidbey Island.
Therapy dog trainer Joy Thompson and her dog Sailor graduated Jan. 18. Sailor is a therapy dog with Summit Assistance Dogs, a nonprofit organization that provides mobility, hearing and professional therapy dogs to people living with disabilities or those needing comfort. The organization used to be in Anacortes but is in the process of moving to North Whidbey. And while the group has done limited work with the military in the past, that’s likely to change in the future. Sue Meinzinger, founder of Summit, said she hopes to work with veterans and their families. “We would like to get the word out that we are there,” she said. “We would like to provide that service.” Summit trains two types of dogs. Some are service dogs that are trained and then placed in a home with someone who needs assistance. Others, like Sailor, are therapy dogs. As Meinzinger explained, therapy dogs are for emotional needs and service dogs are usually for mobility and hearing assistance. Training for both types of canine assistants takes about two years. Therapy dogs are different from service dogs in that they don’t get special privileges Thompson said. “With service dogs, they go everywhere with you,” she said. Therapy dogs can only go places they’ve been invited, like schools or support groups. Sailor became a therapy dog instead of a service dog because he has severe allergies. According to Meinzinger, the training process goes like this: Summit gets a dog through a breeder or a litter the organization has bred itself; the dog goes to a volunteer foster home for six to eight months, like Sailor did with Thompson; some dogs then go to training at places like Monroe Correctional Complex, where carefully screened and selected inmates train with some of the dogs alongside a Summit trainer; then the dog comes back and finishes training with staff trainers at Summit and gets placed in a home. Thompson has had two therapy dogs in the past, including Clancy, who is now just a pet dog. Before Clancy retired, Thompson took him places like a special ed reading class at Olympic View Elementary in Oak Harbor. Thompson said Sailor will also probably do sessions with children. “Sailor has a particular affinity for children,” Thompson said. Thompson also said she would like to do military events. “I think that would be a wonderful thing to do,” she said. Thompson’s husband is retired Navy reserves and her father is retired Army reserves. The training program she went through, which lasted two years, required at-home training in addition to training at a facility. Luckily, Thompson’s husband helped with the training. “He’s in love with Sailor,” she said. Puppy trainers follow strict protocol when the dog is with them at home, like not swinging the front door open and letting the dog run out when it’s time for a walk. Meinzinger has had a lot of experience with training. She trained dogs in California and then worked in Arizona before moving to Washington. Dogs are taught to be obedient pets for about three years before going into service and therapy training. Meinzinger said in her 20s she was in a relationship with someone who was paraplegic and she learned a great deal about the challenges people with disabilities face. Years later, she saw a program about service dogs on TV and started to learn more about them. “I saw the opportunity to help people with disabilities, and that was very rewarding to me,” she said. In the past 15 years, Meinzinger said she’s been a foster parent to 15 to 20 dogs a year. She usually has at least a couple dogs at a time from Summit that stay with her at any point in their training process. Meinzinger said one of the greatest needs the program has is for foster homes. “We rely on many volunteers who foster our dogs,” she said. She said it’s a great way to have a dog for a shorter period of time instead of having a dog for a lifetime, especially for members of the military who move often. Currently, Summit does not provide service dogs to help people living with post-traumatic stress disorder. But Meinzinger said Summit is looking to get involved with the military community in other ways. The program has done education outreach like taking therapy dogs to the commissary and handing out literature for people to learn more about therapy and service dogs. And while plans to train dogs for PTSD assistance aren’t in Summit’s immediate future, the program eventually may offer that. But Meinzinger said the program has always accepted members of the military whose primary disability is mobility or hearing. Right now, Meinzinger would like to get involved with veterans and the military community on a visitational basis or getting involved with members of the military who would like to help train service and therapy dogs. Meinzinger said a dog like Thompson’s Sailor would be available for events like support groups, picnics and a variety of other outings. In addition to Thompson, Meinzinger said a woman on South Whidbey went through the Summit training program; she uses a therapy dog in the mental health services that she provides. Thompson said the goal is to provide highly trained service and therapy dogs to anyone in need. “I’ve seen firsthand the joy people have when you visit them with a therapy dog,” she said. For more information about volunteering with Summit or placing a request for a therapy dog session, visit the website or email info@summitdogs.org