Bedford woman trains dogs to help young, old

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By John Barnhart

In addition to being good friends, dogs provide service in many ways. Service dog is one line of work that many are involved in. It takes a lot of special training to prepare them for this job.

A local woman, Cassondra Cummin of Bedford, has been training service dogs for a number of years. One unusual feature of her service dog training work is that her trainees all come from the Bedford Animal Shelter.

Cummin tests candidates.

The first test is to see if the dog is approachable. She will also take a trained dog and walk past the candidate dog to see if it acts aggressively. She also watches to see how the dog reacts to dogs in pens next to it. Is it frightened or aggressive? Is this behavior due to stress, or is it something inherent in the dog's temperament? These are questions to which Cummin finds answers.

She also walks a cat past the dog, with the cat safely outside the pen, to see how the dog reacts. A service dog candidate can't have a high prey drive.

She goes to the dog, squats down and sees if the dog likes human attention. Cummin pulls out a toy to see if the dog wants to play. She also sees if the dog will wait for a dog biscuit, to make sure it isn't food aggressive. Passing these tests indicates the dog is subservient.

"We want a dog that works for us, not us working for them," she said.

Because these are shelter dogs, she rarely encounters pure bred dogs, although she occasionally encounters pit bulls or Rotweilers. She has to avoid them as it's hard to get insurance for those breeds.

"It's sad," she said. "My experience with these breeds has been positive."

All dogs that she selects are spayed or neutered, health screened, vaccinated and micro-chipped. The micro chip proves ownership and Cummin said that dogs brought into the shelter are scanned to see if they have one. It they do, it shows that this is somebody's dog and makes it possible to locate the owner.

"We don't necessarily choose puppies," Cummin said.

Some of the dogs she's trained have been adult animals that were running the roads. They could have ended up being euthanized.

"Look what they are giving back," Cummin said.

Service dogs do have to be trained to focus on their partner. They learn to retrieve, to obey directional commands and heel next to a wheelchair. They are also trained to open doors and turn light switches on and off. Cummin said that the service dog's job is to mitigate a handicapped person's disabilities.

"We work with a dog for approximately eight months to a year," she said.

Once a service dog is on the job, it is recertified each year.

Eventually, a service dog has to retire, this being determined by its health. A retired service dog stays with its owner as it's become part of the family by that time.

"They're forever," Cummin said.

Sometimes a service dog candidate washes out of training, usually for something minor. Sometimes it inconsistently retrieves. Sometimes it never gets over being startled by a vacuum cleaner. Cummin started thinking about what else these dogs could do with their skills.

"We had wonderful dogs with sound training and special skills," Cummin commented.

These dogs are good therapy dogs.

One therapy area is reading. The dog is non-judgemental. Children who are normally reserved aren't reserved with the dog.

"After a few weeks, the dog is their best friend," she said.

Cummin now has four dogs certified with listening skills. This is an additional certification to therapy dog certification. These dogs need to be calm, tolerant dogs that thrive on interaction with children.

Therapy dogs are used in nursing homes. These dogs need to be calm, affectionate dogs that aren't startled by odd movements or distracted by the environment. Cummin said that she has seen nursing home residents blossom when the dogs come in. Many of these residents once had a dog. Cummin said that, in those cases, they try to find out what kind of dog the resident had, and bring in that type. She said that therapy dogs are helpful in counteracting depression in elderly people.

The reading and therapy dogs work in three Bedford area nursing homes and five schools, both public and private. To do this, she depends on volunteers and this means that volunteers, as well as the dogs, need to be screened. She looks for volunteers who have experience working with children or elderly people and who can make a commitment and be consistent. She also has background checks done.

"A lot of people can relate to dogs," she said.

As a result of her experience, Cummin keeps an eye out for dogs with a temperament for jobs other than working as a service dog. The people that work at the shelter are aware of the animals they have and often call her attention to certain dogs. That's how she got Chuck, a beagle who works as a reading dog and therapy dog.

"We met Chuck at shelter adoption days last year," she said.

Chuck had a lot of hair loss and nobody took him. Cummin took him and found out that his hair loss was due to stress. Once he was in her home, he was OK, and his hair grew back normally.

"I thought I'd end up placing him in a good home," she said. "The good home turned out to be me."

Cummin said Chuck is a favorite with children, including toddlers.

She has been training dogs for 25 years and has seen the animals make a difference with people, nursing home residents who begin to smile or a child who becomes interested in reading.

"When you're having a bad day, nothing makes you feel better than a dog," Cummin said.