When you hear the words “service dog,” what kind of dog comes to mind? Typically, it will be a Golden or a Labrador Retriever, breed types that have, over the years, become synonymous with this role. Entire integrated programs are devoted to breeding, training and placing these dogs with people who need them. It’s noble work.
A New York-based 501(c)(3) nonprofit, Animal Farm Foundation, takes that noble work even further by providing service dogs who buck the stereotype. All are shelter dogs, and most are Pit Bulls. Not only do their big Bully smiles lift hearts, they also reflect the dogs’ comfort with their jobs, which include serving as hearing-alert, mobility and psychiatric service dogs.
In training these dogs to provide specialized and individualized support, and matching them with people who need them at no cost to the recipient, AFF helps create positive changes for a type of dog all too commonly affected by negative stereotypes and discrimination.
AFF trainers visit shelters, looking for canine candidates who are confident, good with other animals, noise-tolerant and comfortable with being handled. Once dogs have been transferred to the AFF shelter in New York, more time is spent evaluating their suitability as service dogs. Regardless of whether a dog finally ends up doing this work, every dog AFF takes in is provided for, often through adoption as a family pet.
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Inmates at the Rikers Correctional Facility do some of the initial training through the AFF-sponsored program, Paws of Purpose. For two months, dogs live with program participants in the correctional facility’s housing area, where they receive 24/7 attention from the men to whom they’re assigned. The men take classes on dog care, and a certified professional dog trainer works with them to provide the dogs with companionship, basic obedience training and socialization.
The help goes both ways. In interacting with the dogs and being the beneficiaries of unconditional and uncritical canine attention, the men learn more about themselves. According the NYC Department of Correction, the program reduces institutional violence and helps inmates who take part in the program build social skills that will, ideally, smooth their transition back into society.
Dogs judged to be suitable for service work receive further training, learning to do a number of different jobs specific to what an individual handler may need. These may include alerting people to sounds, retrieving dropped objects, opening and closing doors and cabinets, guiding wheelchairs, or interrupting panic attacks. AFF trains both the dogs and their handlers, and also provides additional training as handlers’ needs evolve.
The idea that all dogs are individuals underlies AFF’s approach. It mandates that dogs be judged on their actual behavior rather than on their looks, assumptions or stereotypes, a concept that’s also extended to people. As noted on the AFF website, “People shouldn’t be judged by their disabilities, living situations, income, age, race, gender, sexuality or by their past—and none of those things should be used as excuses to keep dogs and people apart.”
And that is, perhaps, the most noble work of all.