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Nitro’s Village

All the world’s a school for service dogs in training 

It takes a village to raise dogs like Nitro.
      It takes a village to raise Nitro.
      Part of Nitro’s village is the yoga class he attends three times a week.
The pup lays on his blue blanket at the front of class, chews on his bone and fights the urge to get up and roll around with the yoga students as they stretch. 
      “Every once in a while, he thinks we’re done and he’ll get up, but I’ll just say, bed, and he’ll go lay down,” says Tina Preece, Nitro’s significant human. 
       When Preece says the magic release word at the end of class, Nitro sprints across the room to wiggle a happy hello to all.
      The 18-month-old golden retriever and Labrador mix is, by nature, all fun. But he’s a dog destined for more than play. Before he’s two, Nitro will be the dog of another human, a disabled person who relies on him to achieve independence. 
      So, for the last year and five months, he’s been working hard every day to please Preece, who is Nitro’s volunteer puppy-raiser.
      When she says hurry, he relieves himself. When she says dress, he gets into his vest. When she says let’s go, he walks in her direction. When she says out, he goes out the doorway, turns and sits, waiting for his next command.
      “Every single person and thing he comes in contact with is a new learning experience,” Preece says.
      In yoga class, instructor Satyam helps to keep not only his students but also Nitro calm. If Nitro gets up during class, Satyam gently pets him to calm him down. 
      “Everybody’s always excited to see him,” Satyam said. “It creates a sense of community, and everybody feels like he’s come here for a greater purpose. They recognize that he’s here for training and that he’s going to be offering something to society. So, it’s been a community-building experience. Everybody thinks Nitro’s part of their lives, like their dog.”
      Village businesses also help Nitro in his training. 
      “They don’t have to allow me to bring him in because he’s not a certified service dog yet,” Preece explained. “But pretty much he can go just about anywhere.”
      In a coffee shop, Nitro lays under the table, almost invisible to the other people around.
      “That’s what we love,” says Debbie Knatz, the Puppy Program Manager for Canine Companions for Independence. “They are so well-behaved that they are basically invisible.”
       Socialization has been the most important part of Nitro’s training with Preece. Nitro is her full-time companion, and she spends almost every day actively training him.
      “We ask the puppy raisers to take them out into public places, into stores, into restaurants,” Knatz says. “That way when the dogs are matched with people who have social lives as well as disabilities, they’re used to going out and doing things.”
       Preece began training service dogs after seeing how much it helped a person in need.
      “I was always interested in raising a puppy,” Preece said. “When a friend’s daughter fell from a tree and got paralyzed, she went on the waiting list for a dog. After she got one, it was just amazing how it changed her life, so I really knew I really wanted to do it.” Who do we have to thank for this?
       Canine Companions for Independence, the place where this all started, is another huge contributor in raising Nitro. The organization still will have lots of work to do with Nitro when he goes back to the regional headquarters in Medford, New York, in November.
       This organization has been providing Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, and crosses between the two as assistance dogs free of charge to children, adults and veterans with disabilities. It began in 1975 and has its national headquarters in Santa Rosa, California.
       “Canine Companions is a world leader in canine genetics,” says John Bentzinger, public relations coordinator for Canine Companions for Independence. “Our dogs’ DNA is meticulously screened, and only the best of the best are chosen as breeder dogs. We have bred 95 percent of the hip dysplasia from our dogs, which is a really amazing statistic.”
       Volunteer puppy raisers adopt these dogs to help begin their training. 
      “The puppy raisers are really the backbone of our organization, and we couldn’t serve without them,” Bentzinger says. “The volunteers take the pups into their home, raise them and teach them basic commands and socialization skills.”
       The puppy raisers make financial contributions, too.
      “We as puppy raisers pay for everything ourselves,” Preece says.
       Dr. Grant Nisson of Muddy Creek Animal Hospital, Nitro’s veterinarian, has been doubly important in Nitro’s village. 
      “The vet plays a huge part in this training because you don’t want the dog to be scared when you go to the vet,” Preece says. “Dr. Grant Nisson has been very, very good helping socialize him while taking good care of him.”
      Dr. Nisson has paid for Nitro’s neutering and all his immunizations.
      At about a year and a half old — a little older for Nitro, because Canine Companions has too many puppies and not enough trainers — the dogs are well enough prepared to head to Medford, New York for advanced training.
       “They begin six months of professional training with our nationally renowned instructors, where they learn over 40 advanced commands that are useful to a person with disabilities,” Bentzinger says.
       In this advanced training, dogs are trained to open and close doors, turn lights on and off, and pick up dropped items as small as a dime. They can pull a manual wheelchair, drag a laundry basket and help tug off a sweater or coat.
      For Annapolitan Nanc Patterson, pull is a particularly useful command. Her service dogs — first Mahler, who died of cancer, and now Tango — pull her wheelchair up ramps, open heavy doors, carry groceries, do laundry and help her get undressed.
      Her dog’s many patiently learned skills, she says, “gave me my life back. He opened doors for me in physical ways and in every way.”
      Patterson’s canine companions have not only allowed her to be more active physically but also to be more active in her community, helping others in positive ways.
      “It’s not just because he makes me feel better. He’s my arm, my leg, my heart, he allows me to live fully,” she says. “I’m grateful to all of the people. It wouldn’t happen without everybody that’s a part of it.”
       Nitro’s future is still undecided.
       Preece’s first pup-in-training, Liam, became a hearing dog for a person in need.
       But Preece imagines Nitro as more of a therapy dog for people with PTSD, who are more in need of a calming presence than physical help.
      “I’d like to see him with someone like that, who can take him out and play with him,” Preece says.
      Of course, Nitro knows none of this. At 18 months, he’d like to be just a dog, Preece says. Putting his vest on, which he knows means going to work, is not his favorite thing to do. Pleasing and loving people may be what he likes best, maybe even better than food. That companionability will make him not only loveable but — more importantly for a dog with his vocation — serviceable. 
       He’s a dog who’ll have a job to do in his village.
Bay Weekly summer intern Keri Luise writes here about a subject familiar in her family. Her aunt, Petra Roman of Darnestown, has raised three Hero Dogs for veterans.