Get to Know Our Staff — An Interview with Advanced Trainer Christy Bassett

Christy with Dozer (left) and Jagger (right)

What is your title, and how long have you been at NEADS?
I am one of the Assistance Dog Instructors, or advanced trainers, here at NEADS.  I have worked here for over 8 years, but have been involved with NEADS for almost 10 years.

Did you always want to work with animals, and how did you end up at NEADS?
Yes, I’ve always been an animal person.  I had sporadic infatuations with many different kinds of animals as I was growing up — horses, cats, dolphins, seals, and so on.  But most of my interest in them was sparked by a connection I saw between them and their “people”, rather than an appreciation for them individually. I think animals and people can have very interesting and rewarding relationships.

We got our first dog when I was 10 years old (after begging and pleading for years before that) and I was converted to an instant dog lover.  Now that I think about it, I was sort of a dog-dork when I was younger.  I knew every breed in the book and loved analyzing people’s pet dogs, trying to guess what type of mixes they were.  To this day mixed breeds are my favorite type of dog to work with.

Like some of the other trainers here, I originally wanted to pursue the dream of training dolphins or Sea Lions at Sea World.  But after a year of college majoring in Marine Biology and thinking more about why I wanted to do what I did, I changed directives to focus more on training domestic animals.  I didn’t like the idea of forcing an animal into captivity to entertain people. I wanted a career that had more meaning than that.  I looked into Guide Dogs, Police Dogs and Search and Rescue Dogs.  Eventually I found NEADS and discovered a whole new world of what dogs were capable of and saw how much they could help people. This is my dream job and I am lucky

What is the most important training tip you would give to someone who is working on training their own dog?
Creating a solid, trusting relationship with your dog is more powerful than any one particular training trick you could ever learn.  If your dog trusts you and you provide fair, consistent leadership for him or her, everything else falls into place.

What is your favorite part of working at NEADS?
I love working with the dogs that come from shelters above all else.  There is something that instantly ties you to a dog that you pull out of a shelter.  Then watching them transform into a dog that has his or her needs properly met and strengths magnified and directed into a job is simply amazing.  The purebred dogs that come from our puppy program are wonderful dogs from the start.  But knowing you had a hand in changing a dog’s life for the better and ultimately matching them with a person that they can help too is the ultimate rewarding experience.

Are there any dogs who have made a particular impression on you during your time here?
Yes, there are many.  One of the first dogs that I trained and matched with a client was a little Shepherd mix named Wednesday that came from the dog pound.  She helped me to learn and practice much of what I needed to know to become an assistance dog trainer.  I think back to all of the mistakes I made with her and still, she trusted me enough to greet me with a wagging tail every morning and work through my errors.  She ended up making it through the program as a full fledged service dog for a woman that used a manual wheelchair.  I remember practicing “fetch the phone” with her in the NEADS lobby the week before she left and I just broke down into tears when she did it perfectly.  I was so proud of her.

You work closely with prison inmates who train our dogs through our Prison PUP Partnership. What impact do you think this program has on the prison inmates? What is it like to work with them?
I currently work with the inmates at JJ Moran medium security men’s prison in Rhode Island.  They are a very talented, dedicated group of individuals that I’ve gotten to know well over the years.  Many of them have long-term sentences and have trained several dogs for us so far.  I look forward to our classes every week and enjoy hearing about how much the dogs have impacted the lives of everyone they encounter.  It’s really something to see a 250 lb. man, covered in tattoos, break down and cry when they see their dog return to prison with their new partner.

Even prison staff members and visiting counselors have come up to me to express how much the dogs have changed the atmosphere in the facility.  Recently a woman stopped me in the parking lot to compliment me on my people-training, which was a first!  She told me that the guys have much more confidence and seem to have a sense of purpose when they have a NEADS dog since they know what to do and how to do it. Apparently they are also more in tune with how their actions and energy affects others, which is one of the things we talk about when relating to dogs. Learning theory is the same in all animals, including humans, and if presented the right way I think that people can learn a lot about social interactions from training a dog.

Do you have any animals? What are their names and what are they like?
I have more animals than I have names for!  We live on a small farm where we have chickens, ducks, turkeys, bunnies (“Cinnabun” and “Roger Rabbit”) and goats (“Walker” and “Texas Ranger”) outside.  We have 3 cats; a barn cat that we rescued from a feral colony named “Daisy”, a disabled cat that we adopted from NEADY Cats named “Cami” and a barn-kitten turned indoor cat named “Vinnie”.  I also have 2 dogs; an 8-year-old Pit Bull/Husky mix named “Jagger” that I got as a puppy and a 2-year-old Catahoula Leopard Dog mix named “Dozer” that we just rescued from a Southern shelter.  So far he’s fitting in with all of the commotion very well!

Get to Know Our Staff — An Interview with Client Inn Keeper Judy Henry

Judy's "Esther the Pester" has a rare moment of relaxation

What is your title at NEADS?
My title at NEADS is “Client Inn Keeper.”

How long have you been with NEADS?
I’ve been fortunate enough to be on the NEADS campus since 2000. I started taking care of the gardens, then I worked with various volunteer groups. Eventually I got into cleaning the houses on campus, taking me in the direction of the Client House.

You maintain the client house, where our clients stay when they are in training with their new assistance dogs. A big part of your job is to make sure that the house is clean and welcoming from the very first day they walk in. It must feel great to play a role in their comfort and happiness while they’re here! What is that like for you?
It’s amazing! The clients are OUR special guests — they arrive as clients and leave as friends. How many people can say they’ve had the chance to meet people from all over the country and, even better, have had the chance to see all of these amazing dogs placed with all these special people? I love making the house a warm, comfortable, inviting, special place to be. It’s so rewarding.

You don’t work directly with the dogs, but I know you have a great deal of affection for them and for the NEADS mission, and you’re always on the lookout for ways to help NEADS.
I don’t work directly with the NEADS dogs because believe it or not I’ve never owned a dog. A very special cat got me involved with volunteering at NEADS. I love being a volunteer. How often in life do you get a chance to return a favor?

While I was volunteering at a city animal shelter I got a chance to meet a dog named Rusty. Rusty was returned three times for his high energy. Because I was part of NEADS I could see this dog had more than one chance in life so I asked NEADS if Rusty could meet a trainer (Christy Bassett).  I’m very pleased to say that Rusty went into the program; he graduated as a Hearing Dog. Being part of NEADS Nation opens so many doors, in so many different ways.

Do you have any animals of your own? Who are they and what are they like?
I have three cats that allow me to live with them (all rescues)! It’s hard to live by their rules. It’s true what they say: dogs have masters, cats have staff! Katie is a calico Siamese (AKA “Dynamite”). She’s a petite dynamo, who is always in a mood. Smitty  (I was smitten with this kitten) is an orange tuxedo cat who is always sweet and PURR-fect. Then along came Esther (AKA “Esther the Pester”) This crazy calico is always UP to something!

Get to Know Our Staff — An Interview with Client Coordinator Administrative Assistant Susan Berry

Sue's family pet, Ginger

What is your title and how long have you been at NEADS?
Client Coordinator Administrative Assistant. I have been working here for 5 months.

How did you come to work here?
I saw a job opening in the Sunday Telegram back in March 2011.  I was laid off at the time and thought what a great place that must be to work.  I have been doing pet sitting since 2005 and one of my clients was a former employee of NEADS who has now moved to Maine.  I remember her telling me how she enjoyed going to work everyday and bringing her two dogs with her.  I am an animal lover and wanted to know what NEADS was all about and when I saw the opportunity to come work at NEADS, I didn’t hesitate to apply for the job.

What is your average day like?
The first thing I do is say hello to all the dogs here in the office (and their owners).  My day consists of checking emails, printing the new applications for service dogs that come in from potential clients, calling clients to set up interviews, assisting Director of Client Relations Kathy Foreman with administrative duties and other office tasks.  Every day brings a new adventure.

What have you learned about service dogs that you didn’t know before you started working here?
I never really knew before I started working here what a service dog actually does for a person.  What I have learned is that a service dog, with the proper training, can make a huge difference in a person’s day to day life.  The tasks that they can be trained to do is amazing to me. These dogs are very intelligent.  They seem like they love to work and
please their owners and enjoy all the hugs and affection that they get from doing so.

What is your favorite part of your job at NEADS?
The best part of my job is calling clients to set up an interview and hearing the excitement in their voice when I tell them why I am calling. Some clients are so thankful for the opportunity to come here and let us know how a service dog can make a difference in their lives. I once spoke to a man to set up his interview at NEADS. This man was so excited for the opportunity to get another service dog.  He had recently put his service dog to sleep and is well aware of the positive impact a dog can make in his life.  His dog never left his side.  He immediately took the first appointment I offered him.

You’ve only been here a short time, but do you have any stories about a particular dog at NEADS that has made an impact on you?
I enjoy learning about all the dogs that come through NEADS.  I do not have a particular story, but just getting to know the dogs here and their individual personalities is special to me.  Every dog has a story of their own.

Do you have any animals of your own? Who are they and what are they like?
I do have a dog.  She is a yellow Labrador Retriever named Ginger.  We got her when she was 8 weeks old and now she is 4 years old.  She is a wonderful, good natured family dog and has a special place in our family.  She always wants to be with my two boys, especially when they go swimming in the lake near our house.  She had a litter of 10 puppies in July 2010 and was a wonderful mother to them.  She is treated like a queen and enjoys it tremendously.

Get to Know Our Staff: An Interview with Junior Trainer Jen Banks

Junior Trainer, Jen Banks

What is your job here at NEADS and how long have you worked here?
I have worked at NEADS for about 2 1/2 years now. Currently my job consists of working with dogs in the kennel and matching them with clients. I still look to Christy Bassett and the other trainers for help and support because I am a Junior Trainer and am fairly new to the game. I also run a prison program at Boston Pre Release. I go there once a week to run class for the inmate handlers. I assist the puppy raiser coordinator by reading weekend puppy raiser reports, answering questions for volunteers and giving training advice to those who need it. And finally I coordinate the recertification tests of all our past clients who have to be recertified a year after receiving their dogs and then every three years for as long as the dog is working for them.

What is the average day like for you?
If it’s a prison day, then I am usually on the road all day. Days that I’m at NEADS usually consist of working dogs in the training room and brushing up their task work (fetching, tugging doors etc) and then taking them into public to make sure they will work in multiple situations. I’m in the process of writing a new manual for our volunteers with another trainer, so lately my days have been spent at the computer doing that. I also e-mail puppy raisers often, and try to answer their questions and give them advice if I see they are having trouble with something. And I spend a good amount of time reading weekend reports from puppy raisers and going over the notes that the inmates hand in to me. Then finally I keep track of all the clients that have been recertified and who still needs to be. I coordinate that and review the tests when they are handed back to me.

How did you end up working at NEADS?
I started out as a volunteer in the kennel in 2006. For a little over two years I helped exercise and feed dogs, as well as keep the kennel clean. In 2008 I did an internship for school with one of the trainers. For three months I helped Christy work her dogs. I learned a lot in that time. In 2009 I got a call from Christy saying that there was a training position opening at NEADS. I went in for an interview and got the job.

Can you describe the path of a trainer at NEADS? I know you started as an apprentice trainer. What are all the levels and how to you achieve each one?
For my first two years working at NEADS I was an apprentice for Christy.  I helped Christy with dogs she had in the kennel, I went to prison with her and I learned a lot by observing her. During the second year of my apprenticeship I started recruiting dogs from shelters and attempted training them as service dogs. This is how I learned to train the service dog tasks such as fetch, nudge and tug. I was recognized in March 2011 as having finished a 2-year training program through NEADS. I still work alongside Christy and I am always asking her training questions. I also talk to the other trainers here at NEADS if I’m not sure how to handle something.

Have you always wanted to work with animals?
Yes I have.  I used to want to work at sea world with the dolphins and whales, but NEADS turned out to be a more reachable goal.

What are some of your favorite things about NEADS?
I appreciate the different styles of training all of the trainers bring to the table. There is a wealth of knowledge among the NEADS staff!

Do you have any stories about a particular dog at NEADS that has made an impact on you?
Many of the shelter dogs I worked with had a great impact on me. They taught me so much.  My first shelter dog was a yellow lab named Zack. He didn’t make it in the program but he will always be my favorite. He was wild and crazy when I first got him, but calmed down a lot after some training. He was adopted by a family that had an 8-year-old boy. Zack was the boy’s first dog.  The mother sent me an e-mail about a week after they adopted Zack telling me that her son said Zack was the best thing that ever happened to him. That’s when I learned that you don’t have to get a dog all the way through the program to impact someone’s life.

Do you have any animals of your own? Who are they and what are they like?
I don’t have any of my own pets but my parents collectively have five dogs. My mom’s two dogs are Jessie and Copper. Jessie is a small mixed breed and Copper is a lab/Viszla cross. My dad has three dogs, Roxi who is a German Sheppard, Bruschi who is a Golden Retriever and Elvis who is a German Sheppard/chow cross.

Get to Know our Staff: An Interview with CEO Gerry DeRoche

Gerry with his family dog Jasper

What is your job here at NEADS?
I am the Chief Executive Officer, which means I am responsible for both the day-to-day activities as well as the long term success of NEADS.

You joined NEADS as CEO in December 2010. What made you want to run this particular organization?
I wanted to run NEADS for many reasons. However three in particular standout: I left banking with a very strong desire to run a not-for-profit that had a clear and visible impact on society. NEADS easily met those criteria on many levels. Our family loves dogs. And lastly my father lost his hearing largely as a result of his service in World War II. So as a family we have grown up with a veteran that lives with the results of his service and sacrifice for his country to this day. He is 99 years old.

What do you think makes NEADS unique from other organizations?
The simplicity of the mission combined with the results that extend well beyond the mission is very unique. For example our partnership with the Department of Correction, where inmate handlers train the dogs, does not appear in the mission. However it is a vitally important part of our program that does a great deal of good for the inmates as well as the individual prisons.

What are some of your favorite things about NEADS?
I have so many favorite things it is hard to pick a few. I can say without question I love coming to work each and every day. If I had to pick a single favorite thing it would be meeting and interacting with our clients. I feel proud and energized every time I see a client and know that in some small way we have contributed to improving and increasing their independence. I am almost embarrassed when they thank me for what NEADS does for them. I view this as both an honor and a privilege to be of some assistance. And that goes for not only the veterans that we help but for all of our clients. It’s funny because interacting with the clients on our waiting list is the most difficult part of my job. At any given time we have about 85 dogs in training. And until they are ready to leave the prison we have no idea who they will be matched with. So it is difficult for client to understand and perhaps believe me when I say “we do not have a match yet for you”. Our staff does a fantastic job matching a client with a dog. However that happens toward the end of the process as a well-trained dog is leaving the prison.

Is there anything about NEADS that came as a surprise to you?
Coming into this position, I did not realize that not all breeds or even all dogs are good candidates for assistance dogs. They have to have a specific temperament to be successful assistance dogs. Further, the temperament for a good hearing dog is vastly different for any of the various assistance dogs. I was and continue to be fascinated by the requirements for a balance/walker dog. In addition to the temperament they need to be a certain height and weight to match up with the client. So this, as you can imagine, is one of the most difficult dogs to source for our clients.

Do you have any stories about a particular dog at NEADS that has made an impact on you?
In my short time at NEADS I already have a treasure trove of stories about these amazing companions. It is difficult to pick just one story. If I had to pick one it would be Currahee. He came back to us from a veteran who has a daughter that is severely allergic to dogs. While we were looking for another special client match, he stayed at NEADS and quickly became a favorite of the staff. He is a beautiful black lab with a great temperament and superb skills. I took him home over Easter weekend. While on a walk with our 2 goldens a bunch of wild turkeys ran across the road. Our goldens nearly pulled my wife’s socket out of her shoulder as they tried to go after the turkeys. Meanwhile Currahee just looked up at me as if to say; “so, what’s with that?” That is just one example of the quality and strength of training our dogs receive.

Your background is in banking and nonprofit management, so working around animals is something new for you. What do you think?
In practice I do not really work with the dogs. I see them. Sometimes I play with them. I always marvel at them. However I really still work with people. It could be the staff at NEADS, our clients, our supporters, our volunteers and the public in general. So it really isn’t that different with one exception. Most of the groups that I mentioned are passionate about NEADS and our mission. You generally do not see or experience to nearly the same degree the passion for the mission in the for-profit world that you see in an organization such as NEADS.

Do you have any animals of your own? Who are they and what are they like?
As I mentioned we have 2 golden retrievers: Chase is nine and Jasper is five. They are great pets and they have their own skills. However they could never be NEADS dogs.

Get to Know Our Staff: An Interview with Trainer Erin Wylie

Erin with assistance dog in training, Izzi

How did you become interested in being a dog trainer?
When I was little and was asked “what do you want to be when you grow up?”, the answer was always “a dolphin trainer”.  The trainer part of the job stayed the same, but the animal just changed!  I have enjoyed being around dogs since I was a little kid, but my family didn’t get a dog until I was older.  So the way I filled the void was by volunteering at a local guide dog organization exercising the dogs in for training. I knew that something as simple as letting dogs run around to release their energy was contributing to their success as future guide dogs and would ultimately lead to helping someone who was blind or visually impaired.  I knew at that point that I wanted to train assistance dogs because I could combine my passion for dogs and for helping people lead more independent lives together.

How did you end up working at NEADS?
During my junior year of college, I was watching the 10 o’clock news one night and saw a sneak peek of an upcoming segment about assistance dogs.  It peaked my interest of course!  It was a segment on NEADS and the Canine for Combat Veterans program.  I had never heard of NEADS so I hopped on the Internet the next day and found that NEADS taught a six week Instructors Training Course, where NEADS gives you a shelter dog and teaches you the basics of service dog training.  I thought this was the course for me!  I applied and found myself at NEADS a few months later taking this course.  I will never forget my experience during those 6 weeks, nor the shelter dog I worked with.  I loved the training, observing the clients training, and the feel of the NEADS organization as a whole.  I went back to college, applied for an apprentice training position in the spring of my senior year, and was working for NEADS a month after graduating from college.

Is it hard to say good-bye to the dogs after you develop such a close relationship with them during training?
I get asked this question a lot when I am out and about training with the dogs in public.  It’s rather easy actually because I get to work with the clients who they are matched with and get to see the bond they have formed with me transfer onto their new partner.  It’s amazing to watch and be a part of.

Part of the NEADS program involves prison inmates in New England training our dogs. NEADS trainers like you visit these prisons on a regular basis to teach the inmates how to train our dogs. What is it like to work with the inmates? What are some things that people might not know about prison?
I think working with the inmate handlers is no different than working with any other group of people.  Of course, being in the prison environment has its difficulties because there may be restrictions on what you can do or can’t do to work on a problem a puppy may be having, or where a handler is allowed to go on the facility.  However, that’s one of the great things about this job – it gives you a challenge and chance to be creative to solve the problem.  It’s rewarding to watch the handlers throughout their time in the program – not only do their skills as handlers grow, but they as a person grow.  They learn how to be responsible, how to love and care for a living being again, and they gain skills that will ultimately help them to reintegrate into society.

A big part of your job is to work with clients when they come on campus for training and teach them how to work with their new assistance dog. That can be a very emotional time for clients. What is it like for you as their trainer?
It is a very emotional time for them, as well as physically and mentally draining for them.  As their trainer, teaching and training them is hard work, but it’s the most rewarding hard work I have ever been involved in!  During the week, I have to think about what is best for them, physically and mentally, at all times – doing new material or material requiring more stamina when they have their most energy of the day, rewarding them a lot when they are doing a great job to build their confidence, giving them constructive criticism in certain ways as to build them up, not push them down.  There’s a lot of mental energy that goes into it.  I think there are times where I am just as tired as they are by the end of the day!  The other thing I always want to convey to them during this time is how much they are supported by me, as well as the entire NEADS staff, during their training and after they leave. They are never on their own – we are just a phone call or email away.  I think that helps to ease any concerns they may have and make them successful with their new match.

What are some of your favorite things about working at NEADS?
My favorite things about working at NEADS are:  we help people of all ages and all walks of life by training different types of assistance dogs; building relationships with clients; the incredible staff and volunteers; and of course the dogs.

Do you have any stories about a particular dog at NEADS that made a big impact on you?
I don’t. I think that every dog I have worked with has impacted me in one way or another.  What impacts me the most is the stories from our clients.  Many keep in touch with their trainer after they have finished their training.  It’s great to hear how the dog has helped them in their day to day lives.

Do you have any dogs/pets of your own?
Surprisingly no!  I am probably one of the few people at NEADS who doesn’t own a dog.  It’s on the horizon though – just waiting for the right dog to come along.  My parents have 2 dogs that I get to see when I visit – Tess, a 9 year old black lab, and Klute, a 6 year old black lab/golden cross.

Get to Know our Staff: An Interview with Intern Matt Boisvert

Matt with assistance dog in training Freedom, at the Boston Health & Fitness Expo in June

How did you become an intern at NEADS?
I became an Intern at NEADS through The Mission Continues.

Can you talk a little about The Mission Continues and how you became involved with them?
The Mission Continues is a 501c3 non-profit that empowers wounded and disabled veterans to begin new lives of public service in their community.

What do you do on a daily basis at NEADS?
At NEADS I help with managing the kennel, along with walking dogs. Recently I have started helping with one of the trainers, taking dogs on town trips, or helping with hearing dog training.

Have you always been interested in working with animals?
I have been involved with animals my entire life, especially dogs. The only time in my life I was not was during my 4-year enlistment.

Have you met any dogs at NEADS that you’ve grown particularly fond of?
During my time at NEADS, I have met many great dogs. There are two that I have grown especially fond of, Monty and Merlin.

What are some of your favorite things about NEADS?
One of my favorite things about NEADS is that everyone loves what they are doing, you can tell it is more than a job to everyone.

Do you have any animals of your own? Who are they and what are they like?
I have four American Pit Bull Terrier/American Staffordshire Terriers: Bella, Saphire, Icy, & Hank. I am very involved in anything positive dealing with this amazing breed, Conformation/Weight Pull Competitons. I am very passionate about saving this breed, so I am involved in rescuing and fighting breed-specific legislation. I one day plan to run a Pit Bull Rescue/Sancuary.

Anything else you want to add?
I am very greatful to be given this opportunity to help out my community as well as fellow veterans like myself. Thank You…

Matt became an intern at NEADS through The Mission Continues, an organization whose mission is to: build an America where every returning veteran can serve again as a citizen leader, and where together we honor the fallen by living their values through service. For more information on The Mission Continues, please visit their website.