Freedom Dogs has benefited greatly from the guidance of our training advisers, Sue Ailsby and Nan Arthur, as well as the life experiences of our volunteer trainers. Some have worked in hospital and medical settings or received training in social work, psychology, or special education. Others have raised children or have grappled with health issues themselves.
What they all share, however, is a critical ability to empathize with our clients, while at the same time working deftly with the dogs. They’ve become well versed not only in dog training, but also in the emotional landscape of warriors still coping with the horrors of war. Our approachable specialty service dogs are the initial ambassadors to the warriors, but our trainers are just as integral to the warrior’s support system.
The original training manual, Steps to Service, was written for Freedom Dogs by Sue Ailsby. Nan Arthur, a Karen Pryor Academy instructor and highly respected dog trainer and behaviorist, works with our volunteers twice a month. Her extensive knowledge of canine behavior helps us encourage calming and assistive behaviors in our dogs.
Our volunteers train the dogs independently at first, using clickers and treats as positive reinforcement. Freedom Dogs are trained early on to recognize anxiety through behavior. The dog soon becomes clicker savvy, paying close attention to her trainer. Eventually, the warrior becomes a part of the training, taking pride in the collaborative process and internalizing the reward of taking risks. Over time, the vest goes on the dog, and both clicker and treat can disappear.
Training in the Real World
In addition to classroom sessions, the dog-trainer team conducts individual working sessions with the Marine. Freedom Dogs doesn’t take any short cuts. Over many weeks, the volunteer trainer works with both the dog and warrior in multiple situations the warrior may encounter in daily life.
After the training period and when the warrior feels ready, he or she can take the dog and go “solo” to the movies, church, or store. The warrior can request a particular dog to accompany him or her on these specific “solo” outings as needed.
In all phases of training, the volunteers help integrate a medical plan devised by the warrior’s health care provider.