116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — After spending two years training to work in settings where mental health is key, six dogs this week watched their handlers get trained on how to be good human co-workers.
“What is happening here is we’re fine-tuning the handlers to become people with professional working dogs,” said Deafinitely Dogs trainer Lorette Vanourny.
Admittedly, the humans are more difficult to train sometimes, she said with a laugh.
The six dogs graduating from Deafinitely Dogs the first week in August have already secured jobs in schools, therapists’ offices, a senior retirement community and a funeral home. That distribution of the new graduates to “facility” settings, where the dogs will help groups of people rather than one person, is a departure from past trends with the service dog organization.
For the organization that started in 2014 with a focus on dogs for things like hearing notification and diabetic alert, the shift in focus that started with the pandemic is likely to continue for years.
“When COVID hit in March 2020, instantly our requests for facility dogs and especially PTSD dogs completely escalated, and our fundraising completely shut down at the same time,” said co-founder Sherry Steine Ross.
In July, the drastic shift in demand meant they had to make the difficult decision to stop taking applications for autism and other disability assistance dogs to focus on facility dogs like the class of August 2021. Steine Ross expects that focus to continue for the next five years.
The dramatic increase in demand for mental health needs hit immediately in March with entirely new populations at risk for struggling with depression, anxiety, grief, fear or post-traumatic stress disorder. Steine Ross expects more requests for PTSD service dogs to hit in the next year or two; the not-for-profit requires one year of therapy before some recipients can apply for a service dog.
The uptick in demand for PTSD service dogs is now for first responders, nurses and doctors working on the front lines of COVID-19 in unprecedented circumstances.
“They have to make life or death decisions they were never put into before,” Steine Ross said, as they work under the stress of exposing themselves and their families to COVID-19 and witnessing an onslaught of deaths.
But facility dogs will start to have instant impacts on their communities now, as each pooch works with potentially hundreds of people. In therapy, Goldendoodles like Rooney facilitate honesty in what can be intense conversations.
“Therapy can be very vulnerable, and it’s hard to develop the kind of relationship you need to be honest and authentic with your therapist,” said Molly Chambers, marriage and family therapist at Insight Therapy Group. “The ability to maintain authenticity with a therapist is the number one predictor of therapy success.”
Rooney’s circumstances are unique. Though Chambers originally was training Rooney to be a service dog for a veteran, it became clear after the derecho that he would not be fit for that kind of service.
With a social, energetic personality that can be distracted, Steine Ross said Rooney has more energy that a one-on-one service dog should have.
“We let our dogs tell us what they want their jobs to be, that’s one thing that makes us different,” she said. “We saw that Rooney would go ‘Hey, a leaf!’ or ‘Hey, a squirrel!’ and a service dog can’t do that.”
But with the right social temperament, compassion and empathy for human emotion, he will make a great facility dog to interact with multiple people.
When humans are in distress, they release cortisol. While humans can see the symptoms of that distress, dogs can smell the hormone before the visible symptoms manifest. Studies have shown that petting a dog or cat releases oxytocin, bringing tension in emotionally intense or traumatic situations down.
Chambers said that during difficult moments in therapy, clients look more at Rooney, who returns the looks with unconditional love. Eventually, he will visit veteran homes for therapy.
Dogs like Rooney are trained to do specific things to help on the job. Vanourny said dogs are trained to say “hello” to new clients. If both dog and client are amenable to the interaction, the dog will apply deep, weighted pressure by lying across the lap or simply resting their chin on the person’s lap.
“Sometimes people don’t even know they’re petting the dog or stroking them with their foot,” she said. “Dogs are masters at watching body language.”
In addition to honoring a dog’s career wishes with their personality traits, Deafinitely Dogs is unique in the respect of allowing dogs to choose who they interact with at work.
“We give the dogs choice,” she said — which is not typical in the service dog training world. “We value the essence of every dog that we have in here. It is as important to us as the people that we serve.”
“We would never force a dog to do a job it doesn’t want to do because you’re not going to get a good outcome from that,” Steine Ross said.
In other settings like schools, Labradors like J.J. will be therapeutic in different ways.
Handler Annette Saxion, a special-education teacher at Oak Ridge Middle School in Linn-Mar Community School District, hopes the dogs will motivate, calm and build self-esteem with students who have had a rough year and a half. With the delta variant of COVID-19 disrupting routines and expectations yet again, his calming presence will come in especially handy during volatile times.
Issues with student anxiety or lack of motivation have gotten worse since the pandemic and the derecho, Saxion said. At-home learning through the computer was especially hard for her students.
“I just want them to come to school and feel safe,” she said. “Like everything is back to normal, as normal as can be. To have friends again, be around other kids, and just feel good about themselves.”
With J.J.’s endearing brown eyes, students can feel sure they have at least one friend in the classroom.
“The dogs have no judgment. They don’t care. They’re just a bundle of love,” Steine Ross said.
In addition to training the dogs to recognize stress, handlers are trained how to recognize when a dog needs a break from absorbing human stress. Handlers, some of whom only meet their dogs a few weeks before they work together, learn how to establish healthy, sustainable working relationships.
Though the dogs have some stressful days, Vanourny said dogs usually live a life of bliss where the worst problem is that not everyone at work can give them a treat.
With a high demand for facility dogs, Deafinitely Dogs has had to come up with new ways to meet needs. Partnerships with organizations that train service dogs help by providing the dogs who flunk out for other jobs.
Dogs that are too social to be one-on-one service dogs are failed out early, giving Deafinitely Dogs adolescents with foundational skills that can be trained in a year or so instead of two.
“All our dogs are raised as service dogs in training. As they age to an appropriate work age, they get to tell us what they want to do,” Steine Ross said. “If they can’t stop chasing that butterfly, but they do everything else right, they can be a facility dog.”
The organization is slowly ramping up its training capacity again since the pandemic.
“The need for our services has escalated,” Steine Ross said.
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