By Andrea Culletto  

Incredible Canines: The Miraculous Abilities of Service Dogs

In the dead of night, something shifts. It’s so subtle it’s completely undetectable to the sleeping child or his parents slumbering nearby. It’s not a toxic gas or lurking prowler, though it can be just as deadly. No one could possibly know it was occurring—except one very special family member. 

Sleeping next to the child is his trusty service dog. Even in its sleep, the dog senses a drop in the boy’s blood sugar. Left untreated, the child could slip into a coma. Fortunately, his dog knows what to do. He prods the boy awake, alerting him to treat the issue. If he can’t be roused? The dog will activate plan B, alerting the boy’s parents or pressing a Life Alert or other alarm button. 

This is the lifesaving work of a service dog. It’s so incredible, it almost seems like magic. But this moment is the result of years of incremental training and hard work. “They practice for thousands and thousands of hours,” explained Eve Zellmer, president of Capable Canines of Wisconsin. 

Zellmer has led the entirely volunteer-run nonprofit for 18 years. In that time, she’s seen some remarkable things. One of her favorite memories is of a 6-year-old autistic boy who was nonverbal and unable to handle social interactions. “The child hated going to school,” Zellmer recalled. “He didn’t even want to go outside because there was a chance of seeing neighbors. It was so bad, they ended up putting a  playground jungle gym in their  living room.”

Zellmer and the Capable Canines team trained a black lab to attend school with the boy. When the child became upset or anxious, he was taught to pet the dog. When he did, the dog would lean in and apply calming deep-tissue pressure. 

The dog was also trained to listen to the boy read. When he said “the end,” the dog would “kiss” him and apply deep tissue pressure—the service dog version of a hug. 

“We placed the dog during the summer and things went really well,” Zellmer said. “At the one-year follow-up in-home evaluation, his mom said, ‘You’re going to be amazed.’ She called out, ‘Time to go to school,’ and the boy came running, whipped on his shoes and was ready to go! He has friends at school now. After all, everyone wants to be friends with the kid who has a dog at school. He became very articulate and would even tell jokes. It really opened up a whole new world for this child. That just happens magically with the benefit of the dog.” 

Zellmer remembers an autistic little girl for whom social interactions and noise had become unbearable. In addition, she was a flight risk, often running away from home spontaneously, terrifying her parents in the process. Her service dog was trained to do boundary alert. “If she left her bedroom at night, the dog would wake up her parents,” Zellmer said. “But soon the dog became her best friend. She only wanted to be with the dog so she didn’t even try anymore. Once she got the dog, she blossomed into a totally different person.”

Service dogs are specially trained to handle a wide variety of unique scenarios specific to their handler. If a dog will be placed with someone who suffers from seizures, it’s trained to respond by laying across the person at an angle and applying pressure to eliminate or reduce head trauma. Once the seizure stops, it’s trained to hit a Life Alert button or otherwise summon help. 

Matt Bente and Eve Zellmer with service dogs

Zellmer trains dogs in seizure response by laying down in the middle of a store, holding a spoonful of peanut butter where she wants the dog’s face to be, and mimicking seizure motions. “You always want to let store security know beforehand,” she said with a laugh. “I learned that one the hard way.”

The dog is also trained with a “relief word” that first responders can use to let it know it’s time to stop. Capable Canines contacts local 911 dispatch to set up a file on each patient, complete with their relief word. “Otherwise the dog could become protective,” Zellmer explained.

The process is impressive. But the procedure for training service dogs to sense a blood sugar drop is downright miraculous. This subtle shift is imperceptible to human bystanders, but a dog is different. “Eighty percent of what a dog knows is through their nose,” Zellmer explained. “They can smell stuff 10 miles away.” 

What does this have to do with blood sugar? The scent of a diabetic person’s breath changes when their blood sugar drops. “We have several diabetics who help us out,” Zellmer said. “When they are below 70 on the blood sugar scale, they blow two times on this cotton roll. Then they put it in a sterile tube, cap it and write what their blood sugar was at and the date.”

These samples are good in the freezer for up to three months and can last about three days after opening. 

Zellmer starts training by taking three metal chew tins and punching in air holes. Then she puts a scent in each tin and a treat in the target tin. Every time the dog sniffs the target tin, it gets a treat. “They learn that every time I stick my nose by this smell, I get a reward,” Zellmer explained. 

Eventually she replaces the treat scent with the low blood sugar scent and the dog learns that putting its nose by the new scent earns a treat. Once this is well established, she places the scent into a pocket and the dog learns to “muzzle punch” the scent—and the trainer in the process. This is how the practice of nudging a diabetic person awake is achieved. “The objective is that through smell and alert, it allows the person to take their medicine or drink some juice,” Zellmer said.

Each dog is trained to have different skills. “The person tells us what kind of alerts they want the dog to perform and we practice those,” Zellmer explained. 

Understandably, service dogs are in high demand. Capable Canines’ six dedicated volunteers place several dogs into homes each year. Still, they consistently have a waiting list two or three years long—a difficult reality for people who need help now. “We really need more puppy foster families,” Zellmer said. “Breeders will call up and say, ‘We’re willing to donate two puppies to you.’ But we have nowhere to keep them so we have to pass.”

Capable Canines needs kind, loving individuals to raise  puppies until they’re ready to be officially trained. Foster families can enjoy a sweet snuggly puppy and the knowledge that they’re  providing someone with a life-saving gift. 

Some people hesitate to take on the role because they’re afraid they won’t want to give the  puppy back. But when that day
comes,  there’s always another puppy just around the corner. 

Interested parties can learn more by visiting www.capablecanineswi.com, calling (608) 561-2269 or emailing capablecanineswis@gmail.com.

Therapy Animals: Comfort and Healing in a Furry Package

The little boy lifted his shirt, revealing a long surgery scar. It was the first time he’d willingly shown the cancer’s mark to anyone. He’d noticed a similar scar on Lucy, and knowing she’d gone through it too made him feel safe. The bond transcended their species—something therapy dogs naturally seem to do. 

There’s something about these cuddly companions that draws people out of their shells, relieves pain and eases isolation. It’s almost magical to watch. 

Therapy dog handler Deborah Woerpel has been bringing the magic to schools, hospitals and community events since 1993. “I began my therapy experiences years ago with the famous Dr. Fred, who was the first official Ambassador of Love,” Woerpel said. “Carole Schneider-Phillips started the pet therapy program with Fred at her side. We are all forever grateful for the doors they opened for so many of us. And the beloveds at my side seem to love and need it as much as those with whom we visit. For my cancer survivor, Lucy, visits are her  best medicine.”

The Coulee Region Humane Society’s Ambassadors of Love pet therapy program “consists of therapy animals that go out into the community and spend time with people who are in need of a visit to brighten their day and lift their spirits,” said Erin Olson, Coulee Region Humane Society’s community engagement coordinator and humane education specialist. This includes several dogs, three therapy cats and two rabbits. 

The program began in 1985 and has been making a positive difference ever since. “The gentle, nonjudgmental presence of a therapy animal boosts self-esteem, reduces anxiety and facilitates healing,” Olson said. 

Coulee Humane Society's Ambassadors of Love

Cindi McMullin has been part of Coulee Region Humane Society’s pet therapy program for 19 years. She has learned many lessons along the way, but a particularly impactful one occurred at the Tomah VA. She and her therapy dog, Minnie, had been serving there in honor of her father-in-law who had often used VA services. Everyone loved their visits, especially one man who had suffered a stroke. 

He couldn’t speak, often made strange noises and drooled. Minnie loved him but McMullin felt uncomfortable and unsure. Then one day they went to visit the man in his room and Minnie uncharacteristically leapt onto his bed. “I was shocked,” McMullin said. “Minnie was the perfect dog and never did anything without an OK from me.”

The man, however, was thrilled. “He made his funny noises at her and clearly was happy to have her so close,” McMullin recalled. “I hung back as far from him as I could. I looked everywhere but at that guy. While trying to avoid him, I noticed he had his computer up. I really wasn’t trying to be nosy but, like I said, I didn’t want to look at him. So I saw a letter he was typing to his wife. I didn’t read the whole thing but what I did see was beautiful. I had an ah-ha moment right there; the skies opened and the angels sang. There was a real, sensitive human in that shell of a broken body. We became friends. We learned to communicate his way and I learned a lesson my Minnie knew all along. I will never forget that day my dog taught me compassion and not to judge.”

McMullin has been on both sides of the pet therapy equation, both as a handler and as a family member when her 9-year-old nephew, Cory, was diagnosed with cancer. “The thing that kept his spirits up were the pet therapy dogs visiting him,” McMullin said. “The first thing he always wanted to know was what dog would be coming to visit.”

There were many therapy dog visits over his 13-month treatment, right to the end. “My last memory of him was when Carver the therapy dog came to visit him,” McMullin recalled. “Carver was a border collie and his handler was Beth. She had gotten to know our family well. Beth and Carver came into the room and Cory wanted Carver on the bed. Carver crawled up ever so gently next to him. Cory wanted him even closer; he wanted to feel his breath on his face. Cory, who had been in and out of consciousness all day, pulled Carver right up to his face, put his fingers behind Carver’s ears and scratched and wiggled his ears. Cory giggled, laid back down and passed away shortly  after that. We had been the therapy team in that situation before, but I never thought we would be the family on the receiving end.”

There were 15 different pet therapy teams at Cory’s funeral.

Reading to Rover

Therapy dogs are helpful at hospitals, nursing homes, memory care facilities, mental health crisis centers, substance abuse and recovery sites, juvenile detention centers, group homes, alternative schools, public and private schools, libraries and more. “Our teams on average visit over 60 different locations and visit with about 70,000 people per year,” Olson said.

They’re also an integral part of the Coulee Region Humane Society’s educational program, “Read to Rover.” According to Olson, it’s just “one great therapy pet, one skilled handler and one child, sitting together on a blanket reading a book.” 

The results are powerful. “For a child who is self-conscious about reading out loud, Read to Rover can help eliminate the fear of being laughed at or criticized by peers or family,” Olson said. “Take away that fear, and reading out loud suddenly is fun. We currently have Read to Rover programs in 22 different schools and work with over 5,000 children a year!”

Cindy Mathews and her husband, Fred, have been involved with the Coulee Region Humane Society’s pet therapy program since 2013. They and their dog, Mocha, visit patients at Gundersen Lutheran Hospital and attend certain community events. But Mocha’s main role is as the staff therapy dog at Evergreen Elementary. “She has her own space in a dedicated classroom,” Cindy Mathews said. “While at school, she provides a calm, unconditional loving presence for students.”

Cindy and Fred Mathews with therapy dog Mocha

Mathews recalls one student who was having a really hard day. When his teacher asked him what was wrong, he was unable to answer. So she suggested a visit with Mocha. “In no time, that student was calm, petting Mocha and getting kisses from her,” Mathews said. “He then was willing to share with his teacher why he was feeling upset.”

He’d recently seen a school shooting news report and was worried the same thing could happen at his school. “Mocha provided a distraction for him and helped him to feel calm and secure so he was able to share his feelings with his teacher,” Mathews said. “Knowing what was bothering him helped his teacher to be able to assure him that he was safe at school.” 

This is the power of a good therapy dog.

To learn more about Ambassadors of Love, Read to Rover, and other programs programs offered by the Coulee Region Humane Society, visit www.couleehumane.com. 

Canine Companion Facilitates Healing and Hope

Doctors write all kinds of prescriptions, but at Mayo Clinic Health System in La Crosse they’re prescribing something new—and it treats all kinds of ailments. What is it? A puppy prescription. 

Their new facility dog, Luna, is an even-tempered yellow Lab from Canine Companions for Independence (CCI). She came to Mayo Clinic in 2018 to help patients along with her handler, occupational therapist and rehab services supervisor Lisa Morgan.

Morgan began raising puppies for CCI in 1990. Over the years she’s raised six dogs for the organization, which places their service animals free of charge.

Luna is trained in over 40 commands, all designed to help people in their recovery and rehabilitation, as well as occupational and physical therapy. “We work on strengthening, sitting balance, standing balance, trunk rotation and more,” Morgan said. “And she can play soccer with patients. She’s even pulled pediatric patients on a scooter board. If someone needs a little motivation to walk further, they can take her for a walk.” 

Luna inspires patients to try harder and push further than they normally would have. They benefit greatly from her presence.

Luna

In the cardiac rehab unit, Luna lays quietly with patients undergoing the Enhanced External Counter Pulsation procedure, which takes place one hour per day for seven weeks. “She acts as a positive distraction,” Morgan said. 

One of Morgan’s favorite memories occurred during Luna’s very first week. A doctor asked the team to visit a man who was nearing the end of his life. “He really loved dogs,” Morgan said. 

When she and Luna arrived in the intensive care unit, Morgan gave Luna the command to put her head in the man’s lap. “He was so happy,” she recalled. Next, she had Luna place her front paws across his legs. “He was hugging Luna, laughing and talking,” Morgan said. 

When he finally grew tired, he asked if the pair could come back the next day. Of course they said yes. Shortly, Morgan received an email from the man’s physician, thanking her for the visit and sharing that the man had passed away peacefully right after she and Luna left. She said, “His family told me how much it meant to them to see his final moments so filled with joy.” 

Don’t Fake It:
Putting a Service Dog Vest on an Uncertified Dog Hurts Those Most in Need

It may seem like a simple thing—just order a service dog vest online and you can take your furry friend everywhere you go! It’s a win-win, right?

Wrong.

Pretending your animal is a certified service dog hurts those who actually need these animals to function in daily life. Untrained dogs can cause messes, damage merchandise, urinate or defecate on the floor, bark and even bite people—all because their owner brought them somewhere they weren’t supposed to be in the first place—under false pretenses.

Eve Zellmer, president of Capable Canines of Wisconsin, recalled one incident that occurred when she had a service dog in training at an indoor event. “Suddenly a fake service dog wearing a T-shirt came rushing up to my dog and jumped on him,” she said. This not only causes a break in the dog’s training, but is frightening and potentially harmful.

“I confronted the person and they said, ‘I just want to be able to take my dog everywhere.’ That is not the purpose of a service dog. They are deemed a medical piece of equipment. A fake service dog doing something like that or setting a bad example hurts true service dogs’ reputations and increases the chance that service dogs won’t be allowed into some places in the future.”

But what if you have a therapy dog or an emotional support animal? While important, these do not meet the same standard of certification and training as a true service dog. According to Zellmer, the difference is:

Is it a service dog?

  • A service dog performs a service for its handler and is allowed anywhere the public is welcome.
  • A therapy dog is providing emotional support to the public and is only allowed places where it is invited.
  • An emotional support animal is for its handler. It is not allowed access to the public more than any other dog.

Therapy and emotional support dogs play a vital role in society, but it’s essential not to confuse that role with that of a trained service dog, and it’s essential not to masquerade them as such. Some people may find this unfair, but the reason people are allowed to bring service dogs into all public spaces is that their owners need them to function and—in some cases—to survive. Additionally, while service dogs are not a risk to public safety and comfort, other dogs are—no matter how well their owners may think they’ve trained them.

Pay attention the next time you see a dog in a service vest. True service dogs are focused, on-point and all business. They aren’t distracted or rambunctious. “When you see an ill-behaved ‘service dog’ that’s not in training, please report it to the business,” Zellmer asks. “Businesses are allowed to ask them to leave if the dog is not behaving appropriately or being disruptive. We don’t want people who need service dogs to lose that right all because people with fake service dogs ruined it and created that bad stigma.”

Just remember: No Official Service Dog Certification = No Vest. And if you do see a real service dog out and about, don’t ask to pet it—it’s got its mind on more important things.