Students get homework lessons
MUNCY – With hours of training behind them, the service dogs are ready to perform many tasks, a group of elementary students at Myers Elementary School in Muncy were told by the dogs’ handlers. The training program is part of a community service at the State Correctional Institute in Muncy. The nearby program was discovered by Michele Williamson, supervisor of special education for Muncy School District. The inmates help to train the dogs as part of an organization Canine Partners for Life.
“I thought this would be a great opportunity for our students to see,” Williamson said after visiting the program firsthand at the prison. “What a neat thing for a child with a disability to see,” she added noting that the SCI was more than willing to come to the school.
All grades in the elementary building had a chance to visit with the 5 service dogs who remained close to their handlers.
“The service dogs generally train for one and a half to two years at the prison,” said Margaret Bitler, a Picture Rocks resident and one of the handlers. They live at the prison while in training, and they are taken care of by the inmates. “The dogs live in the cells with the inmates,” added Bitler. “Two inmates per dog are assigned and matched up with them.”
Some of the specific tasks that the dogs are trained to do are to turn off lights, open doors, pick up things and help people with disabilities such as MS, chronic arthritis, seizure disorders, spinal and back injuries among others. “They have homework to do at home, just like you do,” Bitler told the kids. “They are trained to know when to jump and when not to jump, and if they aren’t perfect from the beginning, they have to keep re-learning, so they can get good at it,” she added. “Like you, they have to go to class everyday.” Using a click and treat reward system, the dogs learn rather quickly.
They get to be just dogs too, and are given a fenced-in play area at the prison. “That is their recess,” Bitler said. The handlers get training too and carry an ID card so they can go anyplace the companions or handlers go such as restaurants, museums and zoos, many public places. They must also wear certain apparel. A vest that identifies them as a service dog is placed on their back so the dogs know they are in training at this time. “They have to be sitting down to get petted,” said Eli Stevens.
Once the dogs are fully trained, they are placed in a full-service or home companion status. Home companion dogs help those with Autistic spectrum disorders, ADD & ADHD, Down Syndrome and Cerebral Palsy.
The organization, Canine Partners For Life (CPL) was founded in 1989, by Darlene Sullivan. It is a nonprofit organization based in Cochranville, Pennsylvania, CPL places service dogs and seizure-alert dogs nationwide.
Each CPL dog receives a comprehensive and customized training program (lasting up to 2 years) to meet the specific needs of its human partner. CPL has one of the strongest follow-up programs in the industry to ensure the success of each team throughout the lifetime of the partnership.
“We only have them for about a year, and they learn specific commands,” said Eli Stevens from Muncy. His dog Sid, who is now retired from service, was trained to be a seizure alert dog. “He learned to recognize the onset of a seizure,” Stevens told the children. Labs seem to be a good choice for service dogs. They have a good sense of smell and that makes it easier to train them according to their handlers. “Sid hunts now and and he had a desk at the prison, but now he lives with me,” Stevens said. “Even though he is just a pet now, Sid still knows his commands. He has graduated.”