ST. GEORGE — On a warm September afternoon, Cathy Powell sits on the floor of the Loving Angel Service Dogs training facility with a handful of cheerios clenched in her fist.
Powell is the executive director of the St. George-based nonprofit service dog agency that trains and places public access service dogs with military veterans and others with disabilities.
She’s playing a game called “it’s your choice” with Piper, a nine-week-old labradoodle. In the game, Powell holds the treats and makes sure the puppy is aware they are there. Then, Powell unclenches her fist to show Piper the treats and clenches it closed as Piper dives for the cereal.
The point of the game is to see if Piper will pull back and wait calmly for Powell to offer her the treat. After a few attempts, the puppy responds.
“Good girly,” Powell said, showering Piper with hugs and ear scratches.
At the training facility, they play a lot of games with the puppies, Powell said, adding that the games are a key component of her training philosophy which is centered around love and positive reinforcement.
“We use only positive reinforcements. When they (the puppies) do what we want, then we give them a treat,” Powell said.
Of course, treats aren’t the only reinforcements the puppies receive. Listed on a whiteboard inside the facility, Powell has several positive phrases that she and the other volunteer trainers, as well as the dogs’ eventual handlers, use and will use with the puppies.
Phrases like, “you’re such a good girl/boy,” “you are going to be an awesome service dog,” “you have the kindest eyes,” “you are so smart,” and “you are going to love your final handler” go a long way toward training the dog to love and be loved, Powell said.
That, and the fact that the nonprofit is small and focused on raising only one litter of puppies at a time.
“We do one litter at a time and they are whelped in my bedroom. You know, they’re there until they’re six weeks old, I mean they just get so much love,” Powell said. She added that formal training for the puppies begins at eight weeks but they begin the informal work, including neurological stimulation with the puppies, at just a few days old.
The current litter of eight puppies that Piper belongs to is the third set of eight born to parents Duffy (male) and Lucy (female), both F1 labradoodles, that have undergone or are undergoing service dog training.
Powell said that nationally, the washout rate for puppies in service dog training programs is about 40% but so far none of her puppies have washed out of the program thanks to positive training methods, good breeding and prayer.
“I pray over the dogs before they’re even born, I pray over the final handlers, I pray over the volunteers, I pray over this place,” Powell said.
Debb Johnson, one of the first applicants approved to be a final handler for the current litter of puppies, said that is exactly what she loves about Powell and how the dogs are raised.
“Cathy is such an amazing trainer,” Johnson said. “She trains them with love which means that they grow up with great confidence and trust in the people around them. Plus they are very motivated to please and to help.”
Johnson, who is in a power wheelchair, contracted polio when she was just 1 year old, she said. It was near the end of the polio epidemic just before the vaccine became available.
The progressive disease has made mobility difficult for Johnson whose puppy will be trained to help with basic functions like picking things up, opening and closing doors, removing her socks and shoes and turning on and off lights.
The dog that Johnson ultimately ends up with will be one, she said, that is motivated, focused, on-task and eager to please – qualities that she needs in a mobility assistance dog.
This will be Johnson’s second puppy from the organization.
Powell said that she doesn’t train emotional support animals, she trains public access service dogs. The puppies are trained to have a purpose.
That said, there is a big emotional component to each dog that is placed, Powell said.
Johnson said that the emotional aspect is probably the best part in some respects because the dog will give her a sense of purpose, something to wake up for and to take care of.
Travis “Tra” Vendela, an Iraq War Veteran who has been through the Loving Angel Service Dogs program with his service dog Baylor, said that even though Baylor is trained to work and loves performing tasks like picking things up for Vendela, he is also a great companion.
“He can feel my moods,” Vendela said, adding that he can look into Baylor’s eyes and the dog seems to say “I feel ya, bro.”
As a nonprofit, Loving Angel Service Dogs relies heavily on a crew of volunteers who dedicate their time to help the organization with training, shoveling poop, pulling weeds, aiding with dog photography and a host of other tasks that keeps the work going.
“We are all volunteers,” Powell said. “Even though I’m the head trainer, I don’t want it to be about me, but about them.”
The organization is also entirely donation-based, relying on incoming donations to feed, groom, house and train the puppies at a cost of nearly $20,000 per dog that eventually provides life-changing services for others.
The dogs are trained and placed completely free for military veterans and at a nominal fee for other people with special needs, including those with immobility, seizures, post-traumatic stress disorder or may be in need of autism support, Powell said.
“We have so many, so many great stories of how these dogs have helped,” Powell said. “It just, it encourages, it keeps us going. What we do is a lot of work, a lot of work, but it is so rewarding.”
Individuals and businesses looking to support a great cause in the community may make tax-deductible monetary donations to the organization.
As “it’s your choice” ends, Piper is returned to her siblings and volunteers Cindy Gilmore, Wayne Peterson and Steve Hess work with the other dogs on recall and tasks including gate manners and learning to sit still and wait for their food.
Though there are a few mishaps as the volunteers pat the floor and call out “puppy puppy,” the mood remains happy and positive as the training, games and important work continues.
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