Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Amazing Assistance Dogs of NEADS

I took the opportunity to attend Saturday's Annual Meeting of NEADS: Dogs for Deaf and Disabled Americans in Princeton, and I wasn't in the building more than a few minutes when I made a big--and common--mistake: I approached Bronson (pictured at left), a working assistance dog, with outstretched hand, as if to pet him.

I hadn't realized that Bronson was actually working but was quickly admonished by his teammate. I won't do that again!

My Saturday morning at NEADS was a wonderful and emotional experience, and I learned a lot about its multi-faceted programs to partner special dogs with some special people who really need them.

During its last fiscal year, which ended on August 31, 2008, NEADS successfully trained 45 assistance dog teams, including 10 "hearing" dogs, 17 service dogs, 3 "social" dogs, 3 "specialty" dogs, and 12 classroom/therapy/ministry dogs. Its constituents came from all of the New England states, and from as far away as Alaska, Colorado, Georgia, Maryland, New York, New Jersey, Virginia, and Nevada. The estimated cost to train each dog is $20,000, but NEADS absorbs more than half of that amount.

NEADS usually starts working with dogs when they are young puppies, having learned that the critical learning period spans from the tender ages of 3 weeks to 16 weeks of age. With this in mind, NEADS initiates puppies into its Early Learning Center at the Laura J. Niles Nursery when they are 8 to 10 weeks old. NEADS has dramatically increased its success rate in developing young dogs by adopting the methods espoused by the noted trainers Brian Kilcommons and Sarah Wilson of My Smart Puppy.

At the age of 16 weeks, the puppies leave the NEADS nest and enter the next phase of their training: 80% of these young dogs are placed into one of 15 participating prisons in four states where, as part of the "Prison PUP Partnership," they will be mentored by individual inmates, while 20% go to conventional volunteer foster families. The young dogs will remain with their interim trainers until they are about 15 months old, when they are returned to the NEADS campus in Princeton for the final advanced stage of their training as assistance dogs.

One of the highlights of the Annual Meeting was the opportunity to meet NEADS Advisory Board Member, Matt Collins, and his sweet yellow lab, "Amber," who have been an inseparable team for the last three years. Matt teaches seventh grade, and Amber accompanies him to class every day, where she is clearly the main attraction.

As part of its socialization program, NEADS offers members of the public the opportunity to meet future assistance dogs by participating in "puppy petting" on Mondays through Fridays from 4-5pm at the Laura J. Niles Nursery. A small donation is asked, and I can't think of a better way to spend a happy hour.

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