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!