Although this week is primarily focused on a certain topic involving sharks, August 4th through August 10th is also International Assistance Dog Week. This week-long occasion is aimed at honoring the hard work assistance dogs do, as well as provide information about the puppy raisers and trainers. To help spread awareness, we interviewed Ramona Nichols from The Goodwill Assistance Dog Academy in Chattanooga, TN on the topic.
Photo Courtesy of Goodwill Assistance Dog Academy
Please share with us a little about what you do and how you became involved with assistance dogs.
I became interested in animal behavior while studying at the University of Georgia to earn a BA in Psychology. I started as an apprentice for an obedience trainer and eventually worked into a full-time paid position teaching obedience in group classes, private lessons, and in-home settings. After donating my time as a volunteer for a service dog organization for many years, I was offered a full-time paid position as a staff assistance dog trainer. I’ve worked as a professional trainer for 27 years and have been involved in the placements of hundreds of service dogs.
What type of training or education did you need to complete to become certified?
Although not required for certification, college courses most definitely helped to give me a knowledge base from which to operate. The ability to become an obedience trainer and service dog trainer were the result of working firsthand with dog training organizations, who offered instruction and mentoring from experienced instructors.
What do you personally feel is the most rewarding part of your job as a trainer?
The most rewarding moments for me come when a person with disabilities is matched with their lifelong canine partner. For our organization, it is a two-year process to train one assistance dog, starting with an eight-week-old puppy. It’s a long, challenging journey which takes tremendous work and dedication to complete. It is a true privilege to watch the person meet their dog for the first time and guide them through the process of developing a very unique bond and working relationship. To see these teams solidify, how happy the canines are to be with someone they love, and ultimately, how the dog makes their person’s life more fulfilling and independent is an incredible experience.
Is there a particular experience which has stuck with you throughout your service career?
I’ve heard many service dog recipients say “No matter what happens, I am not afraid because I know my dog will be there to help me.” This is such a powerful gift and truly the reason these amazing canines can make such a difference. Service dogs remove fear and limitations! Service dogs save lives!
For instance, Glen who has quadriplegia experienced a malfunction of his electric wheelchair, rendering it inoperable, at home, it became a life-threatening situation. Glen needs to change positions and take medications which prevent dangerous drops in blood pressure. He was able to send his Service Dog Ranger to retrieve his medication, activate a life alert system to call 911, and open the door to allow emergency personnel in the house. Without his Service Dog, he would not have been found until his nurse returned 12 hours later and would have had no way to summon help.
In addition to helping dogs to help others, are there other pet-related topics you are passionate about?
In addition to providing animal therapy services and trained assistance dogs, Chattanooga Goodwill provides community education about responsible pet ownership and partners with our local animal shelter to provide dog park safety education.
If someone is interested in also becoming a service dog trainer, what advice would you offer him or her?
One great (and no-cost) way to begin preparing for a career in any type of dog training is to volunteer for your local pet shelter or rescue groups. Not only are you helping dogs but you are helping yourself by gaining invaluable knowledge and experience with canines of all ages, breeds, and personalities. If you have a service dog organization in your area, volunteer your time! You help change the lives of people with disabilities while learning about specific service dog training techniques.
Where can readers learn more about The Goodwill Assistance Dog Academy?
We love to connect with people all over the world on our social network pages (Goodwilldogs Facebook page and Goodwill Assistance Dog Academy on Twitter). These are great ways to share in the growth and development of our wonderful dogs and the families we serve. We also have an organization web site at www.goodwillchatt.org.
Last question (fill in the blank). I wish there was more awareness about service dog laws and service dog etiquette. Why?
Unfortunately, there are still businesses that deny people with assistance dogs access to their services. Assistance dogs are not pets. They are medically necessary! A service dog is as necessary to a person as a wheelchair is to a person with a physical disability or a cane to a person with a visual impairment. Without their canine partner, they are unable to navigate the environment.
The American Disabilities Act is federal law, written to guarantee equal access and opportunities to people with disabilities, which gives service dogs the right to public access. Denying a service dog the right to accompany their person into a public place is violation of federal law. This includes hotels, taxis, public transportation, grocery stores, and restaurants. Local food and health regulations do not apply to service dogs.
Also, please remember not to disturb a service dog if you encounter one in a public place. Distracting a guide dog helping his/her person cross a street could endanger both human and canine. Disturbing a seizure alert dog could cause him/her to miss the signs of an impending medical emergency. Service dog handlers are instructed not to allow their service dog to be petted by others while on duty to preserve their working relationship and to ensure their safety.
As a result, please don’t be offended if a handler refuses to let you pet their assistance dog. They are doing as instructed to protect themselves and their canine partner. You can help by not doing anything to distract a service dog. This means do not talk to the dog or make noises. Do not approach the service dog team. Do not try to touch the service dog. Do feel free, however, to talk to the handler and treat the service dog handler as you would any other person you meet in public.