In the Service of Humans by Helene Kobelnyk

Published in the November 9th issue of Vivacini!  To experience a “real magazine”,  read the article in the flipping book version here:  Vivacini! 16 November 2012.

Most of us who are fortunate enough to be in good physical and mental health can only imagine what life must be like for the millions of physically and/or mentally challenged of our society.  In the words of Taryn McCain, president and lead trainer of Laughing Eyes Kennels, “I think that these individuals are presented with more life challenges than they deserve.”

Taryn, together with her friend and partner Cody Traver,  moved from the dampness of Seattle, Washington,  to the warm sunshine of New Mexico in 2007 –a move that was beneficial for Cody’s declining physical and emotional health.  Both were fascinated with the concept of dogs helping their humans and served as volunteer trainers for Assistance Dogs of the West, a New Mexico based service and therapy dog organization.  When they discovered that they both had a “knack” for teaching complex tasks to adorable and talented canines, they decided to train their own service dog for Cody’s sake –her health and mobility had declined to the point of needing help with picking up dropped items and maintaining balance while opening doors or drawers –simple tasks that most take for granted and that could be taught to a dog.  So they trained “Phinley” to become their first service dog –one who remained an indispensable aide and loyal comfort throughout Cody’s life.

Anyone who has a favorite dog knows the therapeutic benefits of touching, stroking and holding his or her pet.  Science now confirms that this physical contact with pets lowers cortisol levels in humans, as well as in the dog for that matter,  and triggers the release of beneficial hormones —  endorphins which provide an emotional lift and  oxytocin  which is beneficial to both men and women.   It’s precisely because of these benefits that service dogs are now used to help people with various psychiatric disorders such as PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) such as veterans returning from war or victims of violent crimes –as well as other chronic mental disorders that prevent a person from living an independent and productive life.  Many of the physically challenged, regardless of the cause of their disability, also fight a battle with mental disorders that include chronic depression.

Contrary to popular belief, dogs do not have a natural affinity for being hugged, so this is something that trainers have to cue because it’s precisely this deep pressure and touching  that produces the calm which the clients cannot consciously create for themselves.  The dogs are taught tasks like leaning into the client, draping themselves over the client’s lap, snuggling with the client, sitting in the lap.  For a more acceptable  calming task in public –sometimes it’s not possible to have the therapy dog sit in the client’s lap,  Taryn developed a cue, “down feet” –the dog is taught to use the torso of its body to apply pressure to the top of the client’s feet.

Mental health professionals who have patients with service dogs, confirm the success of this type of training, as Taryn relates:   “One of our clients takes her service dog to her mental therapy sessions.  The psychiatrist admitted that she is able to gauge whether the session is hitting on deep trauma based on the dog’s reaction long before the client even hints at being uncomfortable.”   Another client admitted that her own dog has learned to alert to her friend’s seizures –a task which was not originally targeted in the dog’s training.

While most service dog organizations complete the dog training, accept and screen the client applicants and then match the dog with the client, Taryn’s approach is a little different.  “We take the dog through most of the basic training, look at our applicants, and then “finish” the dog for some of the specific needs the individual has.  So the last part of the training involves tailoring the canine tasks to the specific emotional and physical needs of the client.   We believe that by personalizing our training we can be more effective in helping more people.  Regardless of ability or lack of, people simply do not fit any mold.”

Through her work with training and placing the dogs with clients, Taryn learned that each client has a unique combination of challenges or “disabilities,” and that not every dog is suitable for every task.  The repertoire of skills that each dog brings to the client as a result of the training is as unique and varied as the set of circumstances that each client faces on a daily basis.  The program focuses its training of dogs primarily for individuals with mobility and/or psychiatric disorders.  “We don’t want to just duplicate what’s out there already or go into specialty areas such as “seeing-eye dogs” or those for the hearing-impaired.  Those require a very detailed and broad range of highly specialized tasks that have to be taught.”    This personalized approach to training and placing service and therapy dogs includes identifying and teaching to each dog’s innate and special talent.

I first met one of their dogs,  Cappy, three years ago when I spent the afternoon playing with a new litter of future therapy dogs and Cappy, only nine months old then, was in the role of “lead auntie” to the lively litter.  Cody’s words then were, “She’ll be a great dog for someone with mental troubles –she’s a natural cuddler.”   Recently, Cappy was placed with the victim of a horrific crime which left the client severely scarred both physically and emotionally.  As a result of the PTSD, the client frequently goes into a dissociative state where the trauma and all its emotions are relived.  Cappy cues the client immediately before the episode  by repeated nudging, which is enough to bring the client to the “reality and safety of the present.”

The success stories and remarkable assistance that these dogs provide their humans are profound —  from simple tasks like fetching medicine when an alarm goes off, opening and holding a door for a wheelchair bound client, to providing “personal safety zones” to clients in a high state of anxiety or automatically searching the home prior to a hypervigilant client entering.  Taryn emphasizes that the dogs are taught to “adapt” their responses.  “They have to be smart.  If the cue is to find and bring the keys, sometimes it means they have to move something first to find the keys.”

The emotional bond between these remarkable dogs and their grateful humans is deep and lifelong. Taryn remembers, “I saw first hand the incredible difference a service dog makes in someone’s life.  No one, not me or any other human could do for Cody, what her dog Phinley could and would.  She didn’t have to be cued –she just knew what Cody needed.”

When Cody died in 2009, Phinley went into enough of a depression to cause Taryn to be concerned.  Taryn “attached” Phinley to her as the program’s model dog.  She now lives in Taryn’s home and has bonded deeply with both Taryn’s daughter and her new kitten.  Recently, Phinley expanded her resume to include an “actor’s” role in the community’s performance of “The Miracle Worker.”

I had seen Phinley in her role as service dog for Cody three years ago so it was a personal treat for me to see her on this day.  As I thanked Taryn for our interview, I turned to give one last look to Phinley, who was the beginning of the dream of  Laughing Eyes Kennels.  Quickly picking up one of her favorite stuffed toys, she proudly trotted over to me as if to remind me of the many times she brought Cody the things she couldn’t get herself.   Phinley truly exemplifies the mission of Laughing Eyes Kennels –“we do it because we want to make a difference in the lives of people who need help.”

Laughing Eyes Kennels is a 501c non-profit organization.  For more informations about the training and the service and therapy dogs, go to their website at www.lekennels.org.