Service dog trainers mix love of animals, passion for helping others

Mitch MacDonald
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Service dogs Penny, left and Eli are good as gold as they wait for their handlers, Chantal Thibeault, left, of Charlottetown and Paula Sears of Moncton. They had their dogs in training at Sams Restaurant Sunday to get them accustomed to meeting new people various places. 

A love of dogs and passion for helping others is the perfect mix for Charlottetown's Chantal Thibeault.

The East Royalty resident was one of three service dog trainers in Charlottetown yesterday giving their canines some "socialization training" as a way to become familiar with being out in the public.

The group, which also included Moncton residents Paula Sears, Anne Caron and three pups Penny, Eva and Eli, had lunch at Sam's Restaurant before walking around Charlottetown Mall.

Training the dogs, a process that takes anywhere from eight months to a year-and-a-half, is somewhat of a first for the three animal lovers.

"We're kind of newbies at it," said Thibeault while sitting next to Eli, a "Labradoodle" mix between a Labrador Retriever and Poodle. "This is a new experience and it's a lot of fun. I've done a lot of things with dogs but this is very different and it's nice to know that it's going to help people.

"I like to mix my love of dogs with helping people and this is just perfect. "

The dogs are trained to help enable individuals struggling with a physical challenge or mental illness to live with more independence. Those needing the service can range from autistic children to veterans diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

The dogs will eventually be tested by a master trainer in Nova Scotia, where the non-profit organization Therapeutic Medical Alert (TMA) Service Dogs is based.

If certified, the dogs are then matched up with an owner, who learn one-on-one from the master trainer about how to work with the dog.

However, Sunday was all about getting the three pups comfortable in public settings, which seemed to go to plan as they all sat by their trainer's feet instead of bothering with the crowds of restaurant patrons, and plates of food, around them.

With much of the training being similar to what most people would do with a family pet, Thibeault said teaching good behaviour in public places such as restaurants, stores and airports is one of the most important aspects.

"It's very important because it has to be done when they're very young," she said. "There's a certain period in their development where they learn to not be afraid of things, that's a big part of what we're doing."

Caron, who got involved with the training through volunteering with her own therapy dog, said things have been so far so good with Eva.

Eva, an "Ausidoodle" cross between Australian Shepherd and Standard Poodle, will likely end up being partnered with an autistic child, said Caron.

She said some of the other training has involved teaching Eva how to retrieve items such as shoes or clothes from a dryer.

"We go with their temperament as well as their personality," said Caron. "She really likes to pick up things, so we just kind of praise her if we catch her instead of reprimanding her."

While Penny, a Standard Poodle, is the first service dog that Sears will fully train, the Moncton resident has also previously helped train another one for about five months.

She said it is easy to get attached to the dogs, which can make it tough to eventually say goodbye.

"But you know going in that they're going to be leaving you and we're all doing it to help others," she said.

More information on TMA Service Dogs can be found at www.tmaservicedogs.weebly.com

Organizations: TMA Service Dogs

Geographic location: Charlottetown, Moncton, Nova Scotia

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  • Joanne Cameron
    January 13, 2014 - 12:26

    This is a great thing you all are doing. My daughter has a special skills dog…a black lab named Fido. She has a spinal cord injury, and Fido has become a very special member of our family. This is a great program, and hats off to all who make it possible!

  • Paula Sears
    January 13, 2014 - 07:12

    Fantastic! Thanks, Mitch. And great job, Chantal!!!