Puppy raiser aims to produce working service dog

  • Dec. 28, 2009 1:00 p.m.

Registered puppy trainer Glenna Spelrem has been taking Iris to a number of populated areas in Rimbey and other locations in the hopes of turning her into a service dog that would to work with the physically and/or mentally handicapped.

Staff reporter

If everything goes as planned, a Rimbey puppy trainer will soon raise a service dog that could ultimately end up making a huge difference in someone’s life.

As part of the Dogs with Wings program, Glenna Spelrem is voluntarily raising a Golden Retriever-Lab cross puppy by the name of Iris, who ultimately could end up as a companion for a person with a disability.

“What a registered puppy raiser does is take the dog through their first year after leaving the litter. We’re responsible for obedience training and exposure to everything public one can imagine,” Spelrem said. “We’re desensitizing and socializing more than one would normally do for a pet in the home simply because as a service dog, she’s going to be exposed and needs to be able to work in all sorts of environments.”

As part of the training regimen, Spelrem and Iris try to get as much exposure as possible especially at large gatherings and make daily ventures to high-traffic locations. In addition, Iris must also be exposed to elements such as traffic, noises, children, other animals and numerous other situations that might arise in the dog’s future career.

“It’s my understanding that her litter will hopefully will be trained as autism service dogs so that’s the reason why we were at the elementary school concert,” Spelrem said. “We’ve also gone to the mall, hockey games and all of those kinds of things where she would be potentially assisting her client with.”

Born in Edmonton on Aug. 12, Iris was part of a breeding program begun by Dogs with Wings and is part of the I-litter whereby each puppy’s name begins with the letter I. Formerly, the program accepted dogs from the public, however under their breeding program, the success rate has increased substantially and sits somewhere between 50 and 70 per cent.

With Spelrem and Iris spending so much time in high-traffic places, it’s important that the public realizes that despite being cuter than a button and an attraction all by herself, the dog is actually working and should be avoided.

“It’s very hard for people not to resist petting her, but it’s important for everyone to know that when she has her jacket on, which is anytime she’s in public, she should not be socialized with people because it’s important for her to know that when she’s got the jacket on, she’s working,” Spelrem said. “Hopefully the community is aware that she is out and about and she is identified with her jacket always. I’m more than happy to answer questions or visit, but I would just ask that they don’t touch the dog.”

By desensitizing Iris to the public and as many distractions as possible, the likelihood of averting a disaster is greatly reduced. For example, if while working with a visually impaired client, Iris were to bolt after a cat or become frightened, the results could be catastrophic.

But it takes a bit more than intensive training to turn a rambunctious puppy into a service dog, as Iris must also be in top physically condition – anything less could see her removed from the program.

“She can get pulled out of the program at any time. They do several health checks and that must be 100 per cent,” Spelrem said. “They’re going to X-ray her elbows and her hips, check her eyes and stuff like that and any deviation from that 100 per cent could take her out of the program, so hopefully we will see her graduate and be placed with a client.”

And while she admits handling Iris has been a huge task complete with training the dog not to eliminate while wearing the jacket, waking up two or three times a night and never allowing Iris to consume human food, Spelrem said the day is coming when Iris will move on to bigger and better things, and that’s a prospect she’s not really looking forward to.

“I’m feeling that it’s going to be a bit heartbreaking at the end of our time together, so I may only have the heart to do it once,” she said. “Puppies are darn cute, but there’s a fair amount of work involved.”

For more information including updates on all the dogs in the program, check it out online at: dogswithwings.ca.

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