Assistance Service Dog Educational Center
Dog Gone GoodMarch 2015
By Fache Desrochers
Photos: Jacki Potorke
As anyone who has ever loved a canine companion can tell you, the term “man’s best friend” doesn’t even begin to cover all that a dog can be. Beneath those soft ears and wagging tail is a creature with incredible potential to assist, love and elevate us to the best versions of ourselves. Dogs are a bit magical, really, which is something that Gerald and Donna Whittaker – owners and operators of the Assistance Service Dog Educational Center - have always known. “I’ve been training dogs since I was eight years old,” says Gerald. “And I’ve just always loved it.”
Founded in 2002, the center was the result of the Whittakers looking for a worthy way to spend their free time as they transitioned into their retirement years. In observing their home community of Woodlake, the couple noticed a truancy issue plaguing the local educational system. Students with personal or home environment problems were not completing high school, and some were not even starting it. Fortunately, the Whittakers had an idea: not only would the Assistance Service Dog Educational Center train Golden Retrievers to be service dogs that are placed with people in need, but the organization would also enlist those at-risk students to be the trainers. “We decided to use the dogs as the carrot to make the kids come to school every day,” confides Gerald, eyes twinkling. “We’d give each student a little eight-week-old puppy, and they would be responsible for coming in every day to train it. We also initially made our class the first period of the day, because we realized that once the students had gotten up for that, it was easier to get them through the rest of the day, and they would finish school.” A clever plan indeed. But really, this keen understanding of the way minds (both human and animal) work has long been the foundation of the Whittakers’ training philosophy. “Truly, the main thing that we teach is person-dog psychology,” explains Donna.
Students participating in the program not only learn how to train dogs, but the life skills that make that training possible. “In dog training, you have to be patient and consistent with the commands that you give the dog and the way you act,” says Gerald. “You have to learn responsibility, leadership, and respect. So in teaching the students dog training, we were also teaching them skills that they were able to apply to their homework, to their classes and to their lives.”
The center started out training dogs for people with disabilities: Everything from the familiar seeing-eye dog to truly sophisticated assistance companions who can provide alerts when they sense dropping blood sugar, or the approach of a seizure. From dogs that assist the hearing impaired to dogs who physically help people with equilibrium problems keep their balance, it seems that there is no problem that the Whittakers cannot solve with the right furry helper. And now, with the recent upswing in the return of troops from overseas, the Assistance Service Dog Educational Center’s client base is increasingly populated with veterans. These individuals are especially well served by the Whittakers’ dogs, who are perfectly suited to help with the physical and emotional injuries that time in the service can bring.
The center’s dogs perform an incredible number of tasks to help disabled people lead independent lives. In addition to physically aiding the client, the dogs provide companionship, support and comfort. When fully trained, an Assistance Service Dog Educational Center dog can perform more than 90 skills in response to verbal commands, including switching lights on and off, picking up and retrieving dropped items, and even opening a dryer and unloading clothes.
Thanks to the Whittakers’ uncanny ability to use every part of the service dog training process to benefit somebody, so much about the center seems frankly miraculous. But perhaps the most wonderful part comes at the very end. After the students have completed their training and the client has come in to be matched up with a canine companion, the Whittakers foster a phenomenon that is like something out of a fairy tale: “Oh, the clients don’t choose their dog, it’s always the other way around,” says Donna, with a matter-of-fact smile. “The dog will choose the client that they are receptive to, for whatever reason. The dog just looks at the person and says, ‘You need my help.’ And that’s what we call the magic of the dog.”
ASDEC is a nonprofit, 100 percent volunteer-based organization devoted to assisting the disabled both emotionally and physically by providing full time canine assistance and companionship.
The Assistance Service Dog Educational Center (ASDEC)
(559) 564-3575 • www.servicedogcenter.org
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