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Room To Grow

Service Dog Program Moves To Larger Facility

When UDS Foundation moved from its previous home in Greenfield to 2270 Erin Court, Lancaster, the space available for the service dog program more than doubled. The new facility includes a kennel with space for 12 dogs, a cuddle room for puppies, and a large training room.

According to Lori Breece, UDS service dog program manager, 12 puppies per year are brought into the program, which takes several years to turn an eight-week-old ball of fluff into a dog capable of giving a person with a disability a chance for greater independence. In addition to serving individuals, many UDS dogs are being sent to schools where they provide student support. "Since we have been here (in the new location), we have added several clients in less than a year, including three or four schools," said Breece. "We are so pleased with the pups-in-the-classroom opportunity. Our vision would be a dog in every school or at least every district."

In schools, dogs serve students with multiple disabilities, but they also serve in learning support classrooms. Kristy Smith, service dog program coordinator with UDS, said that dogs help with physical therapy or with fine motor skill issues, but they also aid students struggling with "the emotional aspects of school and life's challenges." Breece added that in some classrooms, time with a dog can be an incentive. "For some of those students who are more challenged, it's a calming influence, and they can work toward time with the dog as a reward," she said.

Smith noted that currently UDS dogs are present in Cocalico, Ephrata, Penn Manor, and Northern York County school districts. "Each dog has a teacher or principal they go home with each night as the main handler, but we ask the schools to have a group of handlers," she explained. Having a group of handlers allows a dog to work in multiple rooms.

Breece noted that having a dog in a school affects the atmosphere of the building. "It changes the lives of the faculty by changing the environment behind the cement walls," she said. "We'd like to see more dogs in schools."

A service dog's training begins when it becomes part of the BARKS Prison Program, through which it is trained by an inmate at a Pennsylvania correctional facility. Puppies live with their inmate handlers around the clock, learning up to 50 commands. At the age of one year, the dogs return to Lancaster. For the next six months, they live in a volunteer puppy home. "(The dogs) attend weekly outings and training sessions, and they will go out in the community so they can get socialization," explained Breece. At the age of 18 months, the dogs are sent to trainers for six months of specialty training.

Smith explained that many of the tasks the dogs perform are extensions of actions that come naturally to Labradors, such as retrieving and tugging, which make up 95 percent of the working service dog force. "A lot of the main job is retrieval from the floor or the counter or helping pay," she said, adding that dogs tug open doors, carry bags that are too heavy (for their client), and remove articles of clothing, such as socks. "They push elevator buttons and handicapped-accessible buttons and turn light switches on and off."

The newest puppy in the UDS program has been named Sully in honor of the yellow Labrador that served President George H. W. Bush and was photographed lying near his master's casket during the funeral services in early December. UDS' Sully is in need of a sponsor, which can be a local individual, organization, or business, to cover his two-year training. Breece is also looking for a sponsor for the dog program's new training room.

Readers who would like to learn more about sponsorship and volunteer opportunities with UDS may visit http://www.udservices.org.

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