By Bromley Chamberlain
Vest on means work. Vest off means play.
Assistant dogs are trained to keep their work life, and their social life separate. While wearing the vest, dogs are not to be pet by anyone but the person they are helping. This is to keep the dogs focus on the person they are helping and to avoid dogs from seeking attention of people.
Iris is a cross golden retriever lab. She has been living with the Spelrem family for the past year going through the Dogs with Wings puppy training.
Glenna Spelrem has been training Iris for to prepare her for adult training.
“Her advance training will begin and it’s another six to eight months,” Glenna said. “It’s towards the end of that training that they decide what service it is she will provide and we’ll find out what that service is close to graduation.”
Dogs with Wings trains dogs to help people with disabilities: autism, blindness and physical disabilities.
The training program that Dogs with Wings follows is extensive. When the dogs are puppies, they are sent to people’s home to endure the first stage of training.
“We have an extensive list we fill out on a monthly basis, a puppy report, that Dogs with Wings use to keep track of their training progress,” Glenna said. “Of course there is all your basic stuff: sit, down, stand. She offers paws to be wiped of after being outside. She does a raise, which means she’ll put her paws up on to the table to retrieve something.”
Glenna and her husband Keith spent many hours with Iris, and helping her adapt to different situations. If fireworks startled her, Glenna and Keith would go out of their way to find fireworks, to allow Iris time to adapt to them. The key is to expose the dogs to as many situations as you can.
Both Keith and Glenna were surprised at how people reacted when they noticed Iris was wearing a working vest.
Glenna said people would stop her on the street and ask if she was blind, if she could see them. Keith said he liked watching how people approached his wife, because they thought she had a disability.
Iris has been taught to push wheel-chair buttons and to push crosswalk buttons. She knows how to indicate a curb, back up and side step both ways.
When the vest is removed, Iris is just like every other dog. She plays in the yard, barks at other dogs, and plays with Glenna’s dog Solace.
With Iris’s first stage of training coming to a close, Glenna was emotional about Iris returning for training.
“It’s like watching your kids go to university, it’s sad, but happy,” Glenna said. “It’s almost being a sucker for punishment. It’s a good punishment, I suppose. You do the training and stuff, but obviously your heart has to be in it.”
Iris’s days with the Spelrem family are limited as she will be moving on for her adult training soon.
We’ll do it again Glenna said, with tears in her eyes.