WHEN JENNIFER ARNOLD and her mother Jennifer Arnold officially launched Canine Assistants in late 1991, they knew they would have to find a way to fund the ongoing operation of the organization, which specializes in the education and placement of service dogs with children and adults who have mobility issues, Type 1 diabetes, epilepsy and other medical needs. So, to raise money, they started kenneling pet dogs at their location in Milton—dogs that no other facility would accept.
“We had lots of barkers, more than a few biters and a surprising number of diaper wearers,” Arnold mused. “We managed very well provided the diaper-wearing and the biting didn’t come in the same dog!”
Those early days may have posed some unique—and sometimes humorous—challenges, but the effort was worth it, as the opening of Canine Assistants was a family dream realized. The original concept came from Arnold’s father, an Atlanta-based physician who sought an option for Jennifer after she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis as a teenager and confined to a wheelchair for more than two years. He turned to a California-based organization that trained service dogs; unfortunately, it worked mainly with West Coast-based individuals and had an extremely long waitlist. Arnold’s father decided to start a comparable nonprofit in Georgia. Sadly, only weeks after starting to plan the venture in earnest, he was killed by a drunk driver while walking in a park. That’s when Arnold and her mother leapt into action.
“It took my mother and me 10 years of hard work to start the program, but we finally did it on December 31, 1991,” Arnold said. And today, more than 28 years later, Canine Assistants is one of North Georgia’s most renowned and prolific nonprofit organizations, placing service dogs in 49 states with a strong emphasis on the needs of individuals in the local North Georgia area. The organization also has expanded to become the premier provider of facility dogs for placement in pediatric hospitals and other medical facilities and features additional animal-assisted interventions, such as a K9 Kids Reading Program and disability awareness presentations.
A DIFFERENT APPROACH
The majority of Canine Assistants’ service and companion dogs are born, raised and educated right at the organization’s Milton facility. Typically, they are Golden Retrievers, Labradors and Golden Doodles, and they are able to handle a wide array of tasks for those with medical and special needs, from turning lights on and off and picking up dropped objects to recognizing the beginning of a seizure or changes in blood sugar levels and alerting others for help. And while many organizations “train” service dogs to handle these often life-saving functions, Canine Assistants actually takes a very different approach. “We no longer train. We teach rather than train,” Arnold noted. “There are two ways dog training works. The first uses punishment and the second uses reward. What they both use is fear to coerce compliance. Training either makes dogs afraid they will be punished or afraid they won’t be rewarded. Service dogs do not deserve to feel afraid. No dog does. Dogs who spend their lives making people happy deserve to be happy themselves. Plus, scared dogs can be trained to robotically respond to cues, but they can’t truly learn.”
And that’s the key to how Canine Assistants works. Arnold has spent years studying and researching to develop the best possible way to bring people and dogs together in a mutually beneficial experience. The result is the trademarked Bond-Based Approach, an exclusive method conceived by Arnold in 2012 that uses social connection to influence dogs’ thoughts and feelings “so they choose to cooperate with us rather than coercing them into complying with our directives.”
Currently, Canine Assistants boasts 125 dogs who are being educated with BondBased Choice Teaching, which Arnold developed with Judy Luther in 2014 and focuses on providing dogs with the skills and information they need to control their own behavior.
“Dogs and people are the two most social animals on the planet,” Arnold said. “Canine Assistants is dedicated to educating people and dogs so they may improve the lives of one another.”
MAKING THE CONNECTION
Both adults and children can apply to be matched with one of Canine Assistants’ dogs, who are educated by a group of committed local volunteers who handle everything from grooming and dog walking to fostering and taking the dogs on instruction public outings. “Our volunteers, with the guidance of staff instructors, do most of our dogs’ socialization and education,” Arnold explained. “They are critical to us.”
They also are extremely effective, as the current waiting list for one of Canine Assistants’ beloved and vital service and companion dogs, who typically are one and-a-half years old upon placement, is five years. Placement is determined by need and not the order in which applications are received, and every case is taken seriously. And when someone is chosen to be placed with dog, free of charge, that individual must complete a two-week recipient camp alongside a caregiver or family member who can assist during the education process. The ultimate goal is to connect a person and a dog who suit each other’s needs and personalities so they can work together harmoniously upon returning home. And as that process occurs daily in Milton, Arnold continues to conduct research and studies that are designed to help her and her team better understand what dogs are capable of learning and how best to teach them.
“I love everything about my job. We do our best every minute of every day,” she concluded, adding that the opportunity to bring people and dogs together never ceases to be both surprising and rewarding. “The depth and intensity of the connection possible between members of two completely different species still takes my breath away.”
Canine Assistants is a non-profit charity and is especially in need during this time of COVID. They accept financial donations or Delta SkyMiles for future travel through their web site canineassistants.org.
3160 Francis Road