When you hear the words “service dog” what kind of dog do you think of? Usually it is a Golden or a Labrador Retriever, breed types that have become synonymous with this role over the years. Entire integrated programs are dedicated to breeding, training and housing these dogs with people who need them. It’s fine work.
A New York-based nonprofit Farm Farm Foundation (501 (c) (3)) takes this noble work even further by providing service dogs who defy the stereotype. All are guard dogs and most are pit bulls. Her big bully smile not only lifts the heart, but also reflects the comfort of the dogs in their work, which also includes hearing as hearing, mobility and psychiatric service dogs.
By training these dogs to provide specialized and personalized support and assigning them to people who will need it at no cost to the recipient, AFF is helping to create positive change for a type of dog that is all too often affected by negative stereotypes and discrimination is affected.
AFF trainers visit animal shelters and look for dog candidates who are confident, can handle other animals well, are noise tolerant, and are comfortable with them. Once dogs are taken to the AFF New York shelter, more time is spent assessing their suitability as service dogs. Whether or not a dog ultimately does this job, any dog AFF takes in is intended, often through adoption, as a family pet.
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Inmates at the Rikers Correctional Facility complete some initial training through the AFF-sponsored Paws of Purpose program. For two months dogs live with program participants in the residential area of the correctional facility, where they are looked after around the clock by the men they are assigned to. The men take dog grooming classes and a certified professional dog trainer works with them to provide companionship, basic obedience training, and socialization to the dogs.
Help goes both ways. In dealing with the dogs and as beneficiaries of unconditional and uncritical dog attention, the men learn more about themselves. According to the NYC Department of Correction, the program reduces institutional violence and helps inmates participating in the program build social skills that ideally will facilitate their transition back into society.
Dogs that are found to be suitable for service work receive training and learn to complete a range of different tasks tailored to the needs of an individual handler. This can include warning people about noises, finding dropped objects, opening and closing doors and closets, driving wheelchairs, or interrupting panic attacks. AFF trains both the dogs and their handlers and offers additional training if the handlers’ needs change.
The idea that all dogs are individuals underlies the AFF approach. It dictates that dogs should be judged on their actual behavior rather than their looks, assumptions, or stereotypes, a concept that is being extended to humans as well. The AFF website states, “People should not be judged on their disabilities, life situations, income, age, race, gender, sexuality, or past – and none of these should serve as an excuse for keeping dogs and people a part . “
And that is perhaps the finest work of all.