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Long process of training service dogs a labor of love

Denise CoStanten spent 14 happy years helping people train their pet dogs. But two and a half years ago, she decided to train her collies for something bigger.

That’s when she got her service-dog certification and opened up her Bellingham-based nonprofit, Brigadoon Youth and Service Dog Programs, where she works with local volunteers and students to train dogs for service dog positions.

“What better combo between dogs and kids?” she says. “It’s kind of like an equation: a dog plus a kid plus training equals a dog ready for a person with a disability.”

But the end result isn’t always that easy. The dogs require two to three years of training, usually starting when they’re puppies.

CoStanten works 12 hours a day, seven days a week taking care of and training her small army of dogs: eight puppies, seven house dogs and 10 service dogs in training. But if it’s a time-consuming process, the results are equally satisfying.

“It is worth it, especially when you hear stories about these dogs helping people,” she says. “That’s what makes it all worthwhile.”

A REASON TO LEARN

In 2005, CoStanten started Paws Across Campus, which provides at-risk and special-needs students a chance to train dogs with Brigadoon. The students attend the Sehome High School class four days a week, and one of those days they spend training dogs with CoStanten.

“It gives them self esteem; it gives them focus,” she says. “It just helps them be part of, in a positive way, the community — and be connected in a positive way. And it also gives them accountability.”

Some students came to the class because of attendance problems. Administrators hoped working with dogs would be the reward to get the students to school. So far, it’s worked.

“Last year I didn’t want to come to school; I didn’t want to be there,” says Skye McWhirk, 17, an 11th-grader at Sehome. “It’s gotten me to come to school; it’s gotten me to want to come to school. It gives you a place in the school.”

For Brittney Wells, the class is helping her overcome a fear of dogs that began when she was attacked by a dalmation three years ago.

“I wanted to see if I could get over that fear,” says Wells, 17, a Sehome 10th-grader. “From the beginning of the class to now, it’s been a big step, but I don’t have that fear anymore.”

As the lead teacher for the Paws Across Campus class at Sehome, Shannon Casey has seen the improvement in her students. She watches and advises as the students teach the dogs to heel and looks on as they practice running the dogs through a small obstacle course, using treats to coax the dogs through tires and tubes.

“It’s a fantastic program,” she says. “It’s changed (the students’) lives — academically and personally, emotionally. It’s finally gotten them focused on career direction and staying motivated in school.”

Though Paws Across Campus is only at Sehome, CoStanten and Casey agree that expanding the program to other schools would be great for students.

“There’s been an increase in grades, attendance, motivation,” Casey says. “It would be great if we could eventually get this program in all the schools in the Bellingham School District.”

DENVER’S STORY

This is Tricia Sledge’s first year with Paws Across Campus, but the Sehome 11th-grader has a unique insight to offer the program.

Sledge, 17, has been blind in her left eye since birth. She was a perfect match for Denver, a golden retriever being trained as a service dog for a woman with a vision disability.

“I had a really good time training him,” Sledge says. “It was kind of personal for me because I have a visual disability like the owner of Denver. In a way I feel like I create more of a relationship with the dog because I have a problem like the owner, so I relate.”

In addition to the knowledge she applies to the program, Sledge and her classmates are learning all the details of how to train a dog. CoStanten tries to relate the training lessons to life lessons in responsibility and setting guidelines, in addition to showing the students how to teach the dogs about 50 commands, such as opening doors or turning light switches.

“You really learn the basics of having a dog and how to bond,” Sledge says. “It feels good. It’s hard when they have to go.”

Though CoStanten says it is often a bittersweet experience watching the dogs graduate, Sledge had a particularly difficult time watching Denver go.

“It was pretty heart-breaking because I felt so close to him, personally,” she says.

But her heartbreak became Beth Hall’s joy. After Denver’s training was complete, he found a home with Beth Hall, 32, and her family in Forest Grove, Ore., in February. Though she had had a service dog before, Hall had been using a white cane to help find her way. She is not legally blind, but she has problems with depth perception, and this had made it difficult for her to get another service dog.

“I kind of fall between the cracks for getting dogs,” she says. “I don’t qualify for getting a guide dog. A lot of service-dog groups won’t even consider me because it’s a vision problem. When Denise said, ‘Sure, we’ll take you,’ that was amazing for me.”

When Hall came home with Denver about a year after applying for him, he was well-received in her home; her daughter, Rebekah, 7, loves to cuddle with Denver.

“One of the funniest things is how much he’s been embraced by my office and my church,” she says. “You would’ve thought the president was coming to my church. And my office, they had e-mails going around, ‘Denver’s coming today.’”

And they should be excited. Before Denver came along, Hall’s visual disability imposed on her an unwanted curfew. She can now ride the early-morning bus to her job as an Intel subcontractor, and she participates in more evening activities at her church, her daughter’s school and with her friends.

“Before I didn’t because I was afraid of being caught out after dark,” she says. “With Denver, I’m not afraid of that anymore.”

The work Sledge put into training her companion is evident to Hall, and she still has the Christmas card Sledge sent her last December, featuring a picture of Sledge and Denver. For Hall, Denver truly has been a special gift

“I love him so much; he’s a great support. He’s always by me. I was really amazed by how quickly he bonded with me. It was like he knew I was the one he was there to take care of.”

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