Service dogs demonstrate abilities as companions to disabled

Service dogs from Companion Training showed how they change people’s lives during a recent demonstration at the Darrel V Manning boardroom and auditorium. It was part of ITD’s brown-bag lunch series, organized by Human Resource Services.

The five local dogs also enjoyed a homecoming of sorts, having trained together at the Boise-based facility.

Once a round of reunion sniffing was complete, each specially trained dog demonstrated how it performs living-skill tasks for an individual with disabilities.

“These dogs can do amazing things and are changing people’s lives,” said Sandra Forst, who co-owns the training facility with her brother and partner T.J. Smith.

There’s the assistance dog JJ, a chocolate-colored cocker spaniel, that has been trained to perform tasks a disabled person might find difficult. For example, JJ can pull a wheelchair, retrieve dropped objects, open doors and flip light switches. A mobility dog such as Sadie is trained to help a person with balance issues by bracing an owner while he or she stands or helping a companion to get up from a chair or an unexpected fall. These dogs allow their owners a sense of independence that otherwise would not be possible, Forst told the ITD audience.

Dogs such as Merlin are trained as trackers for keeping tabs on the individuals they serve. They monitor an autistic person’s location and will track, if needed, to find their person. The dogs also offer a source of comfort at crucial times.

Brinks is a diabetic-response dog specifically trained to respond to spikes and drops in blood glucose levels it senses in its owner. Having a dog like Brinks helps a diabetic owner maintain tighter blood sugar control that dramatically improves health and well-being.

“A diabetic-response dog can smell a chemical change in the body after training,” Frost said. “It will nudge an owner when blood sugar goes up or down, or even retrieve a juice box for its owner, if needed.”

Dogs trained to respond to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), such as Max, provide safety, comfort and motivation to owners. The dogs allow individuals with PTSD to feel comfortable in public and provide natural motivation for a more active lifestyle.

“Our most common training now is PTSD, with all the service veterans returning,” Forst said.

Companion Training likes to start training a prospective service dog when it is around eight weeks of age, she explained. There is no specific amount of time set for training a dog to perform needed tasks, but 120 hours of schooling over six months should be expected. Much depends on the dog.

Cost is based on the dog and the amount of required training.

The basic requirements for becoming a service dog begin with current veterinarian records showing up-to-date vaccinations and a recent health certificate. A doctor’s note prescribing a need for a service animal also must be provided.

Owner and dog must successfully pass several public access tests that are about being good citizens when in public.

Finally, a dog must successfully perform tasks specific to a disability in accordance with the Americans with Disability Act (ADA).

After completing training, a Service Dog Certificate is issued and an evaluator registers owner and dog into the Official Service Dog Registry. A unique identification number verifying a service dog’s authenticity is issued, and the owner receives an identification cape and patches for the dog and handout cards for the public.

For more information about Companion Training or service dog training visit

Photos: Service dogs who visited ITD recently tugged at their leaches in anticipation of their demonstration, which was part of a brown-bag lunch series (top); JJ gets a head scratch while Merlin waits his turn to demonstrate the specialized training (middle); and Merlin provides comfort to a handler representing a person with autism (bottom).

Published 7-6-2012