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Becoming a Service Dog Trainer

 In Service Dog Training, Service Dogs, Training

Training and more

“How did you become a service dog trainer?” This is a question I hear regularly. The answer is multi-dimensional and differs depending on who you ask. The truth is, at Paws for Purple Hearts (PPH), our responsibilities include so much more than training service dogs. The work we do to operate a Paws for Purple Hearts site includes presenting public informational sessions, managing our amazing volunteers, facilitating Canine-Assisted Warrior TherapyTM (CAWT) sessions, training & socializing service dogs, creating events and activities for the Warrior (Veteran and Active Duty Service Member) community, fundraising, and reaching out to local organizations to form partnerships to provide beneficial services to Warriors in the local area.

Mark, an army medic at Ft Wainwright, volunteers as a dog handler during service dog-in-training Buck’s first bus ride.

Mark, an army medic at Ft Wainwright, volunteers as a dog handler during service dog-in-training Buck’s first bus ride.

I have been a Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP) for the past 15 years and a therapy dog handler for over 30 years, bringing my pet dogs to visit patients at hospitals and skilled nursing facilities and to work with clients in my speech-language clinic. During therapy animal visits to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital’s Behavioral Health Unit, I had been asked by several patients, “how do I get a service dog?” At the time, I did not have an answer for these patients as there were no local organizations and I was unfamiliar with the national service dog organizations.

The lack of local service dog resources piqued my interest, so I did some online research and found a few people in Alaska with service dog training experience. We contacted some close, long-time friends who were running a small well-regarded service dog organization in Wasilla, outside of Anchorage. They were excited about our interest in starting a service dog organization to serve people in Fairbanks and strongly suggested that Nathan and I attend the summer seminar at Bergin College of Canine Studies. Thus began the journey…

Veteran, Ken Richardson, volunteers for PPH with Sophie, service dog-in-training at the Tanana Valley State Fair.
Veteran, Ken Richardson, volunteers for PPH with Sophie, service dog-in-training at the Tanana Valley State Fair.
Bits, the PPH feline, representing PPH
Bits, the PPH feline, representing PPH

Continuing Education

During the Bergin summer seminar, I took an additional course entitled, “Dogs Helping Veterans”, in which we learned to provide canine-assisted therapy with Bergin service dogs-in-training to Veterans residing in a transitional housing facility for Veterans who had experienced post-traumatic stress (PTSD) or Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). During my experience at Bergin and with the Dogs Helping Veterans program, I felt that the style of dog training I was learning was a great match for me. Bonnie Bergin’s service dog training program opened my eyes to how amazing these dogs truly are. If we provide the dogs with a stable and healthy emotional life, they will do just about anything for us.

At Bergin, we are taught that dogs are comparable to humans in more ways than we realize, thus capable of so much more than we typically give them credit for.  We’re taught a relationship-based, respectful method of working with dogs, setting them up for an emotionally healthy life and a successful service dog career. The dogs are given opportunities to develop and grow, learning to problem-solve and make good choices within the boundaries set by their trainers. This style of dog training is not only therapeutic in the moment, but also easily transferred into interactions with family and friends in all areas of life.

After completing the service dog seminar at Bergin College of Canine Studies, my partner, Nathan Collin and I were honored to be invited by Bonnie Bergin to start a Paws for Purple Hearts site where we live, in Fairbanks, Alaska. Today, Nathan is the Regional Director of the Northwest Region and I am the Program Coordinator. Since we began working for PPH in 2016, we daily witness the dogs working their magic with Warriors with PTSD or TBI. As Paws for Purple Hearts instructors, we are privileged to facilitate Canine-Assisted Warrior TherapyTM sessions, in which Warriors gain hands-on experience learning a positive, affection-based method of training service dogs during structured sessions that also help to reduce their own PTSD and TBI symptoms.

Fueled by the canine-trainer bond, these Warriors play a key role in helping our wonderful dogs along their path towards graduation as fully trained service dogs who will directly improve the lives of other Warriors with PTSD, TBI, or Mobility Impairment.  This is the model that inspires our motto – “Warriors Helping Warriors®.”

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