A look at the importance of Miami Valley’s working animals
By Tim WalkerYou hear it on every street corner these days – business in the Dayton area is down and the economy has really gone to the dogs. For some people, however, business in Dayton has always been about the dogs. There are a number of people and organizations in the Miami Valley who spend their time training dogs as service animals – some do it as a way to earn a living, some do it for fun and some do it as a service to others, to fill a need they’ve recognized in the community.
Police Dog Services, LLC is based in Germantown and Steve Dunham, one of the founders, is a police officer and dog trainer. He has been a dog handler since 1998, and he and his partners have been training dogs for various Ohio police departments since opening the business in 2006.
“PDS was formed by three partners: John Patrick, Dave Julien and myself,” Officer Dunham said recently. “Dave and John are both retired K9 handlers and have over 30 years of service each as police officers. I’m still an active police officer, and have been since 1992.”
When asked to explain how he got started in training service dogs, he explained, “Originally, I was asked to train a dog for the Warren County Sheriff’s Office,” he said. “I was doing a lot of work with the drug task force there and they wanted to add a dog, so I was asked to train one. Since then I’ve trained three dogs for Warren County and I’ve also trained dogs for police departments in Tipp City, Franklin, Kettering, Waynesville, Lebanon, Monroe, Blue Ash and Hillsboro, and many others.
“Most of the dogs that I train are dual-purpose dogs,” Dunham continued. “They do criminal apprehension work and detection work – specifically, narcotics detection. They’re trained to detect marijuana, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and any derivatives of them, such as ecstasy and crack cocaine …”
Dunham explained that his training process includes class time not just for the animals, but for the handlers too.
“The dogs have to have a certain maturity level to do this job,” he said. “For narcotics detection, most of the dogs have to be at least a year to a year-and-a-half old; mature enough to do well in detection work. It takes me about eight weeks to train a dog and a handler. If a department comes to me and they specifically want a drug detection dog, then I’ll spend four weeks with the dog first – pre-training him, teaching him basic searching skills … then four weeks with the handler for a total of eight weeks training time. At that time they’re ready to be certified and they can go out and work the street.”
Once the dogs and handlers are trained, they stay together as partners, Dunham explained.
“When they’re certified, they’re certified as a team. It’s one dog, one handler,” he said. “It’s a special skill; the dogs aren’t on autopilot. In fact, their skills are very much like us [humans] learning a foreign language. You may take four years of Spanish in high school, but if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it within a relatively short amount of time. With dogs, their skills are perishable also. So they have to be maintained. Continuing education is encouraged. With one of the particular agencies I work for, I get one maintenance training day per week, where I get together with the other dog handlers and we work on the dog’s skills and the handler’s skills.”
Across the Miami Valley in Xenia, 4 Paws for Ability is a non-profit organization that also trains and places service dogs. These dogs, however, are trained for a different purpose.
“We train service dogs for children with disabilities,” said Karen Shirk, the organization’s executive director. “We do some for adults as well. And we also have a new program training service dogs for veterans.”
Their dogs are trained to help their owner with a variety of tasks and everyday activities, said Shirk.
“We train dogs for children with mobility impairment. That would be the mobility assistance dog that does the traditional picking things up off the floor, opening doors, retrieving items and things like that,” she said. “We also train hearing ear dogs, which are dogs that alert deaf people to sounds in their environment. If somebody rings the doorbell, for example, they’ll come and alert them – the deaf person then asks the dog where and the dog takes them to the source of the sound.”
One of the unique aspects of 4 Paws for Ability program is their focus on training service animals for families with autistic children. When asked what their dogs can do to help these families, Ms. Shirk replied, “The first thing they can do is interrupt behavior. A lot of these autistic children have behaviors that are aimed at ‘self-stimming’ (a repetitive body movement that is hypothesized to stimulate the senses. The term is shorthand for self-stimulation) like head slapping, spinning … the dogs will nudge the child to interrupt that thought process. Then hopefully the child would interact with the dog, which is much more appropriate than them continuing to ‘self-stim.’
“The kids can also have meltdowns,” she continued, “because of their frustration of not understanding their environment and usually not being able to communicate as well. So the dogs are trained to give kids a snuggle on command and to kind of teach the children to self-regulate their emotions, using the dog rather than melting down.”
4 Paws for Ability has placed over 600 service dogs to date and the organization is entirely supported by community donations. For volunteer opportunities, a wish list, a history of the organization and more information, please visit their website at www.4pawsforability.org or call (937) 374-0385.
Reach Bubba’s owner Tim Walker at TimWalker@DaytonCityPaper.com.