Alberta service dog agency ramps up training to catch up with COVID-19 backlog

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WATCH: After a year and a half of pandemic challenges, the Pacific Assistance Dogs Society says it's looking to grow its training program in Alberta. As Michael King reports, the group also has a reminder of what to do if you see a service dog in training. – Aug 5, 2021

Service dogs are a lifeline for people with a wide range of physical and mental challenges, and now, with training and travel easier than in months pasts, more people could soon be getting their critically important companion.
Over the last year and a half, the Pacific Assistance Dogs Society (PADS), like countless other non-profits, has been navigating the perils of the COVID-19 pandemic.

PADS helps train and place service dogs with people living with hearing or mobility challenges, as well as people coping with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Miranda Turenne, an advanced trainer with PADS, says the society was able to keep operating by getting creative with how it delivered its programs.

“We’ve been working through a web-based program to go through our theoretical training,” said Turenne. “Now I’m not asking clients, especially those with emotional or physical disabilities… to come into a training facility… in order to spend all day in a classroom learning theoretical stuff.”

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Read more: Federal government sniffs out trainers who can teach dogs to screen for coronavirus

Now that training can resume in-person, Turenne said PADS is looking to ramp up its placement program.

“We’re looking forward to working through our client list that we weren’t necessarily able to (help) or reopen (the program) to clients who we had to decline from our list because of geographical issues due to COVID,” said Turenne.

PADS is also encouraging people with physical or mental conditions to apply for a service dog.

“They don’t just open doors physically, it’s the social ice-breaking that they do and their ability to really be able to change a person’s life,” said Turenne. “Whether that’s providing physical tasks or emotional support, it’s absolutely worth the effort and the wait.”

Service dogs in public

Now that more people are going out in public, PADS is also reminding people of how to interact with a service dog.

Cynthia Hlynski, a PADS volunteer, said it’s been a tricky year when it comes to acclimatizing puppies to crowds.

“We’ve been struggling with getting (the dogs) comfortable with other people,” said Hlynski. “I start training my dogs very young to sit and learn how to chill at Starbucks, and I have not been inside a Starbucks for a year and a half.”

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Hlynski said this challenge means it’s important for people to remember how to approach a service dog, especially while in training.

“They are working when they’re in training,” said Hlynski. “There are times where we’ll say, ‘Yes, you can pet the dog, because we know what’s going to happen so we need somebody to work with us on that, but always ask.”

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