Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Training to Lead

Note: I wrote this feature story about Stafford Schools' Training to Lead program for use in local newspapers. But I wanted to share it with my blog readers, too. It's an amazing program which trains and gives service dogs - free of charge - to those who need them. They hope to educate additional dog trainers, who will take the program back to their own schools or community. At the end of this post, there's information about how you can be a part of Training to Lead.
Photo from Training to Lead's Facebook page, Used with permission
Abraham Lincoln was known for his groundwork toward freeing America’s slaves. So maybe it was destiny that a big white dog named Lincoln freed a high school student from behavior issues and was the calming influence that led him to above-average ACT science and math scores. But Lincoln’s work wasn’t done. He then went on to live with a little girl confined to a wheelchair, freeing her to greater mobility.
Lincoln may be a “mutt” who started life abandoned at a humane society. But today, his pedigree includes TLC of a high school boy. Then, their teamwork transformed him into a service dog.
Lincoln is a graduate of Stafford (KS) High School’s Training to Lead program.  The 35-week course starts with rescue dogs. Each year, 10 high school students become foster “parents” who work with the dogs during a 1 ½-hour-long daily course at school, then take them home at the end of each school day to become part of their families. 
High school science teacher Mike Cargill has taught the Training to Lead class for three years. Before joining the SHS staff, he was director of the Great Bend Zoo, where he trained birds and other animals for educational programs at the zoo and at prisons. He began training dogs as a boy. 
Now that the program is well-established at Stafford High, Cargill would like to expand it. Cargill has submitted paperwork to become a nonprofit, 501C3 organization to make it easier for donors to support the program, which is totally funded by grants and gifts. He also envisions bringing people to Stafford for an intensive residential dog training program. 
“I see it as an opportunity for the community,” Cargill said. “People would come to Stafford and stay here for intensive training for 21 days. They would stay in our motels, eat in our restaurants, and so forth, making an economic impact on our little town. Then, after the time here, Training to Lead would go to the person’s hometown for 10 additional days of specific training with the dog and its new owner.”
2014-15 Training to Lead class - From TTL's Facebook page
He also hopes to share the program with other high school educators so they could develop similar programs in their own schools. 
“We need more dogs like Lincoln and Charlie and Gunner,” Cargill said, naming some of the service dogs who have graduated from the program. 
Service dogs are trained with a specific set of skills to assist a particular individual with daily tasks. The person may need help with mobility or hearing. Some dogs are trained to pull wheelchairs. 

Others are taught to alert to the sounds of the telephone or alarms, for example. Those suffering from PTSD or autism can also be matched with service dogs, Cargill said.
One of the dogs helps his disabled owner with laundry. Another acts as a “scout” when the veteran arrives home, going into the house and turning on lights, then returning to accompany his owner into the house. Others retrieve dropped items. Each dog can be trained with three tasks specifically needed for their new owner, Cargill said.

From TTL's Facebook page. Huck is currently being trained at TTL and is about ready to graduate and become a service dog for a little boy!
Service dogs are protected under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. They may enter buildings with their owners to perform their duties with three exceptions – churches, hospitals and other sterile environments. Special permission is required for people to take their dogs into those settings, Cargill explained.
A therapy dog is trained to go with its owner to provide affection and comfort to people in hospitals, retirement facilities, schools, hospices, disaster areas and to people with learning difficulties. Therapy dogs are not protected under ADA guidelines, but they are often granted special permission to enter facilities like nursing homes and hospitals for “four-legged therapy,” Cargill said.
Of the 10 dogs trained at Stafford High School during the 2014-15 school year, four became service dogs, while another two were classified as therapy dogs. The remaining four became family pets. 
“Generally, most dogs are capable of being trained as service dogs,” Cargill said. “But a student has to have the dedication and make a commitment of time and effort to bring that out of the dog. It requires teamwork from both. How much time is the student willing to spend outside the classroom? Does the student take the dog on trips to the store? Does he or she expose the dog to different situations and still expect the dog to work through the unfamiliar territory and the distractions? Those extras are what’s required to develop the skills needed for a service dog.”
From the TTL Facebook page
The dogs aren’t the only ones learning new skills, Cargill contends. Some of the student handlers are “at-risk” students. They may have behavior issues or they may struggle with the responsibility of turning in homework on time. They may have an unsettled home life. 
“For some of those students, the dog is an anchor. The dogs give students a reason to come to school every day,” Cargill said. “They check the dog in with me every school day at 7:45. At lunchtime, they each come get their dog and take it outside for exercise. They are responsible for another living thing. And, if they don’t keep their grades up, they risk losing the dog. It also forces students to interact closely with a teacher – me – and that impacts their verbal and relationship skills.”
After a few weeks of training work, the dogs are then allowed to go with their students to their different classrooms throughout the day, with the exception of shop class and culinary arts classes. 
“The dogs have an effect on the students in general, not just their handlers,” Cargill said. “If you have a dog in the hallway during transfer time, it just naturally calms and quiets students down. The same happens in the classroom setting. Dogs have an innate ability to seek out those people who need help. Let’s say a student is having a bad day. The dog just keeps working his way toward that student, getting closer to offer a sense of comfort.”
Training to Lead also impacts Stafford Elementary School students through the Reading with Jerry program. Jerry was one of Cargill’s first Training to Lead dogs. Elementary students would read to Jerry, providing a nonjudgmental, listening ear while sharpening reading aloud skills for struggling students. 
While the students may think they are taking care of the dogs, the dogs are also making a difference in the students’ lives.
From the TTL Facebook page
“Dogs help me teach career-ready skills,” Cargill said. “Caring for a dog teaches responsibility, ethics and trust. Students figure out how to build positive relationships, something that’s essential for success in life. During the course of the class, students also develop a marketing plan to promote the Training to Lead program. It’s a self-funded program, so we use those marketing materials to reach out for donations. The communication skills they develop through coming up with the marketing plan and carrying it out provide a good foundation for any jobs the students may have in the future.”
The Training to Lead program provides all the consumable goods – food, collar, lead, shots and veterinarian visits. The students provide the love and guidance.  The program needs approximately $5,000 a year for the 10 dogs, or $500 per dog to cover those costs. 
Programs like Hunting for Heroes are looking for trained service dogs to match with first responders who may be suffering from physical disabilities after years on the job or from PTSD. It’s never a problem to find homes for the Training to Lead “graduates,” Cargill said. Many established programs have a two-year waiting list for dogs and many of them charge thousands of dollars for their trained dogs. Training to Lead dogs are provided to their new owners free of charge. (The majority of TTL’s support comes from businesses, foundations and community groups.)
Steve Hudson with Charlie. 
Photo by Heidi Heilbrunn, Staff Photographer, The Greenville (SC) News

“We could place many, many more dogs,” Cargill said. “That’s one reason I think it’s so important to expand the program. For example, every day, 22 veterans suffering from PTSD commit suicide. For them, the streets of an American city are just as dangerous as the streets of Beirut. They need help, and dogs trained to help them deal with the PTSD symptoms seem to make a big difference.”
This summer, for the first time, TTL placed dogs outside Kansas and Oklahoma. In late May, Cargill and daughter Casey took four dogs to South Carolina for new owners through Hunting for Heroes.
Steve Hudson, a firefighter and EMS for Anderson County, South Carolina, says the true hero is his dog, Charlie.
“It’s really kind of difficult to explain the difference Charlie has made in my life,” said Hudson, who is currently on leave from his job after a back injury and with PTSD. “He gave me my life back. Charlie has just been a God-send. He’s 125 pounds of love.”
Hudson’s PTSD made it difficult to go into crowds, even to watch his 14- and 11-year-old daughters play volleyball.
“I can do it with Charlie,” Hudson said. “He sits with me. If I start feeling anxious, Charlie knows it. He puts his paw on me or gives me a cold nose. He calms me down and helps me relax. It’s really kind of a miracle.”
That’s just one of the skills that TTL taught Charlie. Hudson can also use him for bracing or leverage to compensate for his physical injuries. 
Charlie now has his own Facebook page, Charlie “The Wonder Dog” Hudson. The firefighter chronicles Charlie’s new “adventure” with his family in South Carolina, helping keep Cargill and the TTL students up-to-date on the difference the dog has made for him and his family.

Mike Cargill (in pink) introduces Charlie to his new owner, Steve Hudson. 
Photo by Heidi Heilbrunn, Staff Photographer, The Greenville (SC) News

“When you get a service dog, it changes your whole life,” Hudson said. “In one fell swoop, everything is back to a reasonable facsimile of normal. My wife and kids actually have Daddy back.”
A boxer and lab mix dog named Zeus has done the same thing for Christy Poole, who retired after 15 years with the Gaffney, S.C., police department.
“Zeus makes it possible for me to get out of the house more,” Poole said. “Before I had Zeus, I was staying in the house all the time because I couldn’t cope with the PTSD. Now, he’s with me wherever I go. Zeus is so attuned to my normal that he can sense when my heart rate is going up or I’m starting to get upset. He can practically tell I’m stressed before I can. Just by being there, he calms me down, and I’m having fewer panic attacks. He’s like my little sidekick. He’s my protector.”
This summer, Zeus was Christy’s companion as she flew to Canada to see her sister. 
“There is no way I could have done that before I got Zeus,” she said. 
Though Zeus was specifically trained for Christy, his “doggy intuition” clues in when others need him, too. If one of Christy’s two daughters or husband is having a bad day and Christy is on an even keel, Zeus gravitates toward them.
Huck learning how to work with a wheelchair. From TTL's Facebook page
“He’s bonded with all of us,” Poole said. “He is a God-send. Retired police officers don’t make a lot of money. I never expected to have a fully-trained service dog given to me, free of charge. But everything fell in place, and I am thankful every day for the work Mike and his students are doing.”

There’s no “magic” breed of dog that’s best for training, Cargill said. Students go to the humane society and select and name their dog. The animal needs to be at least 40 pounds to be used for mobility dogs, helping provide their owners stability when sitting or standing or helping them up in case of a fall. They also must be 2 years old or younger to maximize the time they are able to serve their new owner as a service animal. 

“The dogs are the ones who are looking for us,” Cargill said. “It’s the ones who are so happy that we are there. Sometimes, they are the ones who are a little too rambunctious. They’re the ones looking for love.” 

For more information, check out Training to Lead’s Facebook page, www.facebook.com/StaffordTTL or find them on Twitter, @training2lead. Their website is http://www.trainingtoleads.com.

Donations for the not-for-profit Training to Lead can be made through the Stafford Educational Foundation, % Stafford Schools, 112 East Broadway, Stafford, KS  67578. Please note that the contribution is for Training to Lead. 

1 comment:

  1. i adore perusing this article so beautiful!!great work! Max Clayton