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Thursday, September 19, 2019
Matthew Gabbard, a patient on Bridge 2, normally works one-on-one with a pair of service dogs – teaching them how to back up, weave around chairs, and fetch keys.
But when a dozen, 9-week-old puppies visited Oregon State Hospital recently, he assumed a new role. Through petting, cuddling and throwing them toys, he taught the animals that people are trustworthy and safe.
“Seeing them at this stage puts a twinkle in your heart,” Gabbard said. “I feel like a kid again.”
The puppies are slated to become service dogs through Joys of Living Assistance Dogs (JLAD), a Salem-based nonprofit that pairs dogs with people who have disabilities. Late last year, JLAD partnered with OSH to create the Service Dog Training Program, the only one of its kind among state psychiatric hospitals.
The program enables OSH patients to train service animals before people in the community receive them. So far, one of the dogs trained at the hospital has graduated and now lives in his forever home.
“Training starts when the puppies are born,” said Catherine Comden, an OSH staff member who teaches the patient trainers. “Through this visit, our patients got to see another slice of the training continuum. They learned that it takes a team of handlers and volunteers to make this program work.”
While the patient trainers played with the puppies, several other patients were invited to cuddle with them. For Comden, this was a sight to behold.
“I saw an individual laughing and engaging in a way I have never before seen,” she said. “When I put a puppy on his lap, he became a different person. Sometimes, cuddling with a vulnerable, soft puppy can really unlock people.”
Joy St. Peter, founder and director of JLAD, agrees. She brought the puppies to the hospital to help socialize them. When they’re a little older, some may even return for more formalized training.
“I’ve never seen so many smiles in one room,” she said. “People are walking in – whether they’re staff or a resident – and they are just smiling like crazy. Everybody is in such a good mood.”
Ambre of Bridge 1 worked as a service dog trainer for nearly a year. She said getting to play with a dozen happy puppies made her day.
“Service dogs do such great things for people, and even at this stage, the puppies are learning so much,” she said. “Being with them was heaven.”
Read more about the service dog training program in the Spring issue of the Recovery Times.
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