2016-03-17 / Front Page

Dogged obedience

Roxy, a pup in training, could be more than just a man or woman’s best friend
By Ben Meiklejohn
Staff Writer


Erika DeGeorge, left, of Saco, trains Roxy, while daughters Paige and Samantha watch. The DeGeorges will keep Roxy for a year and a half to train her to be a companion dog for a disabled person. Canine Companions for Independence, a national organization, is looking for more family “puppy raisers.” (Ben Meiklejohn Erika DeGeorge, left, of Saco, trains Roxy, while daughters Paige and Samantha watch. The DeGeorges will keep Roxy for a year and a half to train her to be a companion dog for a disabled person. Canine Companions for Independence, a national organization, is looking for more family “puppy raisers.” (Ben Meiklejohn SACO – A Saco family is taking its first try at training an assistance dog that may eventually become a companion animal for a person with a disability.

Erika DeGeorge said her family of five picked up Roxy, a Labrador and golden retriever mix, on Feb. 1, from Medford, New York, where the regional headquarters for Canine Companions for Independence is located. Canine Companions for Independence is a national organization that provides highly trained assistance dogs to children and adults with disabilities.

John Bentzinger, a public relations specialist for Canine Companions for Independence, said the organization uses retrievers because of “their intelligence, their strength and their devotion to service.”

DeGeorge said she came across the idea of training a companion while browsing the website of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

“One day, I was at home and was thinking about giving back and thinking about veterans and giving back to all of the people who have served our country,” DeGeorge said, “and there was a banner for the Companion Canine website. I thought, ‘This would be a good fit for the family.’”

Bentzinger said there are several other types of service dog placements as well. Facility dogs are used in hospitals and rehabilitation centers as motivational tools. Dogs placed in the criminal justice system give comfort to children who are victims of sexual abuse and other violent crimes, as they give testimony against their tormentors, he added.

“We also have a very active wounded veterans initiative that places our dogs with disabled veterans returning from the theaters of war in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Bentzinger said. “One of the young men we just placed an assistance dog with is an active duty Marine who is a quadruple amputee after stepping on an IED in Afghanistan.”

DeGeorge said training Roxy has been a family effort and everyone takes turns teaching the puppy some of the commands that will be useful to a disabled person.

DeGeorge said Roxy was born Nov. 30 of last year, on the birthday of their other dog, Brady, who is 6 years old.

“That’s how we knew it was meant to be,” DeGeorge said.

The family will keep Roxy for a year and a half, until August 2017, and then she will be returned to the regional headquarters where she will begin advanced training with national instructors.

DeGeorge said the family is responsible for socializing Roxy as well.

“Our main job is socialization,” DeGeorge said, “taking her and getting her out, saying hello to people, making sure she’s not afraid of anything.”

DeGeorge said she will contact restaurants and stores to ask permission to bring Roxy inside, to get her accustomed to environments where she will assist a disabled person.

DeGeorge’s daughter, Paige DeGeorge, 12, who attends Saco Middle School, said, “I like getting up in the morning, because I get up the earliest, and take her out.”

Paige said raising Roxy is different than raising a regular puppy because of the unique commands she must learn.

“When she goes into the kennel, we have to put food over the crate as she goes into the kennel.”

Instead of saying “No,” Paige said the family uses the command, “Don’t” instead.

Samantha DeGeorge, Paige’s 9-year-old sister, a student at St. James School, said, “‘No’ sounds like you’re being mean or you’re mad. ‘Don’t’ is a lot more calm.”

DeGeorge said some of the commands are interesting to teach, like when Roxy goes to the bathroom, they say, ‘Hurry,’ which eventually translates into Roxy understanding that she must hurry when relieving herself.

DeGeorge said ‘Stay’ is not a command used much because “all of the commands have an implied ‘Stay.’”

“Down,” “Sit,” “Wait,” “Let’s go” and “Release” are among the other commands being taught to Roxy.

DeGeorge said “Release” is a hard one to remember, but important, because it releases Roxy from the implied “Stay” in all of the other commands.

“Dress” is a command that alerts the dog that it is time to get dressed, and “Under” is used when the dog needs to rest under a table or desk.

“We also say ‘Here’ instead of ‘Come,’” said DeGeorge, “because when you say ‘Here,’ she needs to sit facing you.”

Samantha said when she was at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, she saw another service dog in use for a young girl. DeGeorge said she talked to the girl’s mother who said the girl had autism.

“She couldn’t talk, and got anxious, but the dog calmed her down,” Samantha said.

DeGeorge said it turned out that the dog was trained by a family in York.

Bentzinger said only four out of 10 dogs in training ever make it to graduation.

“The reasons to remove them from service – the majority is personality –based, very few are health- related,” DeGeorge said.

If a dog doesn’t make it into the service field, DeGeorge said the puppy raisers get the first option to take ownership of it.

DeGeorge said when the family went to New York to pick up Roxy, they were impressed with how wellbehaved the dogs there already were.

“There were 50 dogs in kennels and you wouldn’t even know it,” DeGeorge said. “On hand in the back of the building where we were at, there were 50 dogs and you couldn’t hear any of them.”

“There were also two cats there and none of the dogs were chasing them or getting worked up,” Paige said.

Although they were told that the car ride home might be difficult, as dogs often act up in excitement when being taken from the headquarters, Paige said, “She was really good in the car. It was a six-hour drive and she didn’t do anything.”

Bentzinger said when the leashes are ceremoniously handed over from the puppy raisers to the new team, “It is incredibly emotional. There isn’t a dry eye in the house.

“A long-time puppy raiser explained it to me like this: It’s like raising children. When they get old enough, they go off to college. When they’re done with college, you don’t want them to move back home, do you? You want them to go out, find a job, be happy and make a difference. That’s exactly what these dogs are doing.”

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