Organization trains pets to aid those with disabilities

November 15, 2010 10:29:41 AM PST
Twelve years ago, a local not-for-profit organization started a service dog training program.

Now, workers are able to train families' pets in the home to be a companions for members with disabilities.

Pet training in the home takes a little longer and more work, but it's the best environment for both the dog and individual.

Sarah Rothberger is the coordinator and trainer for Ray Graham Association's Morris Service Dog Program.

"We have some people who come to us with a dog that they already have, and they want to get it assessed to see if it's a good dog for the program, and then we decide whether or not it's trainable," said Rothberger.

"Sometimes, we help people find a dog that would work for their family, and every now and then, we help people find a breeder for a pure breed dog that they obtain as a puppy and train from that," she said.

Rothberger is working with the Schenk family's dog, Suki. She is a 3-year-old yellow lab.

The Schenks got the dog for their 6-year-old daughter, Sara.

"My daughter was born with Trisomy 16, which is a genetic abnormality. So, she had open heart bypass surgery, cleft palate surgery, G2 surgery, heel cord lengthening surgery. She has a seizure disorder and has a feeding tube placed," said the girl's mother. "She needs support with all her daily living activities and she non-verbal. She does some signing."

The goal for Suki is:

"Carry medical items for her, motivate her in therapy, retrieve items, you know, just be an extra set of hands," the mother said.

Since Rothberger started training Suki a few months ago:

"She is able to retrieve objects that have been dropped on the floor and bring them to who you tell her to bring them to," the trainer said.

"She 's able to open doors, by pulling a rope that's attached to the doorknob. She can go up on the table counter and put something there or take it off, and she is able to press the handicapped accessible button on a door on command," said Rothberger.

The Morris Service Dog Training Center is located in Burr Ridge. Each dog spends about a year in boot camp. Then they are in specialized training to meet the needs of individuals with disabilities.

Rothberger recommends that if you want your family dog to be trained:

"They can start looking online for training advice," she said. "If they really want to work with a program, they should look for a program that will let them work with their own dog at home. The Morris Service Dog Program is obviously one of those."

There is a shortage of service dog training programs in the state of Illinois. For more information, visit www.ray-graham.org.


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