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Slatington woman trains service dogs as Canine Companions

  • ELSA KERSCHNER/TIMES NEWS Donna Gasker is training Elsie and Herky to be service dogs.
    ELSA KERSCHNER/TIMES NEWS Donna Gasker is training Elsie and Herky to be service dogs.
Published May 11. 2010 05:00PM

Donna Gasker of Slatington needed something to do after her husband passed away three years ago. At the time she was president of the Woman's Club of Slatington which has as one of its projects, the Canine Companions for Independence program.

She looked into the requirements of the puppy-raising program.

Gasser said she could not remember not having a dog until recently so the program was well-suited for her.

The puppies are bred, born and raised to eight weeks old in Santa Rosa, CA, because the organization wants to know the bloodlines so they pass on only healthy animals with good dispositions.

Gasser said she had a beautiful red lab she wanted to donate but it was not accepted because of the breeding program.

Most of the dogs are labradors or golden retrievers, or a cross of the two, because of the reputation those breeds have for docility and temperament.

When one was shipped to Gasser, she said she heard him as soon as she went into the cargo area. Even after a 12-hour flight he quickly calmed down.

In the 13 to 15 months the puppy-raisers have the dogs they are taught 30 commands and then move on to advanced training at the Miller Center, Medford, Long Island, where they learn another 20 commands.

When a dog arrives at Medford it is put through a two-week physical to be sure there are no discernible problems.

They are checked to be sure they are not apt to respond to such things as a train or motorcycle.

Dogs are in the advanced program for six months.

The final two weeks the candidates for dogs come in and are matched with the most suitable dog. The two train as a pair and get to know each other.

If they do not pass everything, they are released from the program and the puppy-raiser may keep the dog or it will be put up for adoption.

People are happy to be able to adopt a dog with the training even the failed companions have received.

That is the way Gasser got Celso. He was too energetic to meet the requirements and she chose to keep him.

Presently she is training Herky, who is five months old and Elsie, who is 15 months old.

Herky was named for the University of Iowa mascot.

The honor of naming the dogs in a litter goes to someone who helps Canine Companions with a donation, holding a fundraiser or some other type of assistance.

Gasser said she meets with a group, the Philadelphia Chapter of the Northeast region.

The president is Carol Levy, who is now training her 18th puppy.

They stress that starting a dog is good as a senior project in school or for a Gold award in Girl Scouting or Eagle project in Boy Scouting.

Gasser said Iams supports Canine Companions and her veterinarian, Country Doctor, discounts care.

All expenses during the training period are paid by the puppy-trainer. Other sponsors of the program are Jean Schultz (Snoopy's mom) and Dean Koontz.

The dogs learn to open doors, to turn light switches off and on, pull a wheelchair, and to pick up things.

For a wheelchair-bound person who leans forward and cannot return to his upright position the dog will jump up with his front legs onto the person's lap and remain until the person uses the dog to push himself upright.

The parents of an autistic boy could not sleep at night because the boy wandered.

The only thing his dog had to do was alert the parents when he wandered, letting them sleep rather than listen for the child to move about.

Levy has a dog that can take a credit card and make payments, then wait for the receipt.

Some of the dogs go to a facility such as a nursing home and Seeing Eye takes some. Veterans have first dibs on available animals.

The dogs wear a gentle leader, a leash with a loose strap around the mouth which provides better control of the head. It keeps them from pulling.

Each animal wears a service dog vest that says "Volunteer puppy-raising program." They can be taken into nursery schools.

"I tell the kids, if a dog has a vest they should ask before petting them. I usually let them pet the dogs because it socializes them. I've had them on road trips and they can be taken into most buildings, even restaurants. I took Celso on the cog train in New Hampshire," Gasser said.

She took him to the Alamo but he was restless and they had to leave.

"There must be a lot of ghosts floating around," she said.

Upon graduation the dogs receive blue vests instead of the yellow ones worn during training.

Canine Companions is always looking for puppy-raisers, said Gasser.

The CCI brochure says they "raise exceptional dogs for exceptional people."

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