The Puppy Whisperer: the benefits for training service dogs for the disabled

By Ben Olson
Reader Staff

Lilly Mitsui might just be known as the “Puppy Whisperer” from this point forth. She is currently training her third service dog for the disabled.

“[My husband] Jim had never had a dog, so I thought this was a good way for us to try it out,” said Mitsui.

Mitsui became involved with Canine Companions for Independence, a national nonprofit organization that provides service dogs for people with disabilities, and is currently raising Falcon—a Labrador/golden retriever cross.

Canine Companions for Independence is one of the most highly regarded service dog associations in the country.

“A lot of people don’t realize that there are guide dogs for all disabilities, not just the blind,” said Mitsui.

Lilly Mitsui and her special pupil, Falcon. Photo by Ben Olson.

Lilly Mitsui and her special pupil, Falcon. Photo by Ben Olson.

Canine Companions places service dogs to people that are wheelchair bound, and also those with multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, spinal cord injuries, hearing impaired and more.

“These dogs are trained to pull wheelchairs, pick things up off the ground, open drawers,” said Mitsui. “They’re really special dogs.”

For Mitsui, raising service dogs is a passion that gives back.

“My goal is to bring the attention to what these dogs do for the disabled and get more puppy raisers here in the community,” she said.

Since the demand for trained service dogs is high—the waiting list usually has around 400 people on it—Mitsui hopes others in the community will show interest in raising these special dogs.

The process is pretty straight-forward: after the puppies are weaned at 8 weeks, they are provided to the trainers by Canine Companions. The trainers are asked to work with the dogs for 30 to 45 minutes per day, focusing mostly on positive reinforcement and social skills.

“One thing that people should know is that they aren’t supposed to pet a service dog without asking,” said Mitsui. “When they have their vest on, they’re working and shouldn’t be distracted. When they’re with the disabled partner, they have to be the main focus.”

After a year and a half of training, the dog is then turned into the Santa Rosa facility, where they will continue onto “graduate school” for an additional six to eight months of advanced training. The training standards are so high that only 45% of these dogs make it through their grad school and get placed with a disabled individual.

The dogs that do make it are then matched with a compatible partner, who then spends the next two weeks in their own version of obedience school learning the commands the dogs already know. The best part? Canine Companions provides these dogs 100% free of charge to the disabled. When trained service dogs are valued at $50,000 apiece, this is indeed quite a service.

Mitsui acknowledges that after a year and a half of raising and training a dog, it’s often hard to give them up.

“I’m not going to tell you I don’t fall in love with every one of the dogs I train,” said Mitsui. “When you see what happens with the family you’re giving the dogs to, however, it’s all worth it.”

Mitsui gets the honor to present Falcon to his new family upon “graduation.” If Falcon never graduates from his final training, she has the first right to get the dog back.

It’s important to train these service dogs correctly not only so that they’ll serve their new masters well, but also because of the inordinate amount of “fake service dogs” there are out there.

“I love how dog-friendly Sandpoint is, but I’ve never seen so many fake service dogs in my life,” she said. “All people have to do is go online and spend $25 to get a vest that says they have a service dog. That’s wrong. It’s like parking in a disabled parking space.”

Though it may seem tempting to order a vest online without having an actual service dog-training program, it’s actual detrimental to all parties involved.

“If a dog is not trained to be a service dog and he misbehaves or is dirty or not paying attention … it gives a bad name to service dogs and the disabled community,” said Mitsui. “I believe a lot of people are doing this and don’t realize what they’re doing is wrong. It’s a serious problem.”

Mitsui said to always look for a reputable organization when searching for a service animal.

For Mitsui, training service dogs is another way of volunteering: “You can write a check, or you can raise a puppy. It’s a lot of fun and a lot of work, but it’s always worth it.”

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