SHELBURNE—Diggity Dogs Service Dogs on the Mohawk Trail trains service dogs and arranges local foster care for dogs going through service dog training.
They specialize in psychiatric and medical alert service dogs. These are dogs that help people with mobility, post-traumatic-stress disorder, and a range of psychiatric needs. Medical alert dogs can serve people with seizure disorders.
Sarah Meikle, founder of Diggity Dogs, studied psychology at Smith College. She began to research psychiatric dogs and then enrolled in Psychiatric Service Dog Academy in Florida to experience the practical side of her studies.
She started her organization a year ago. A board of directors and a board of advisers support it. They work primarily with rescue dogs. They take breeder donations, which are usually hypoallergenic dogs for people who have allergies.
The dogs are assessed then fostered a couple weeks after being pulled out of shelters. The foster families attend weekly classes and work in-home with Sarah. Fosters bring the dogs to work so the dog gets experience living as a service dog.
The dogs learn how to travel, shop, and go into restaurants and other public settings in their first level.
However, these are specialized service dogs. With two people with the same condition, the symptoms may manifest differently.
For example, Sarah explains, people who suffer from PTSD often suffer from nightmares. The response from the dog that the person wants may be very different from another person.
Sarah says some veterans have told her that they worry about being startled by their dog if it should lick their face. They don’t want to lash out and punch it.
Other people may find a dog’s lick comforting.
The process of training the dog specifically for one person intensifies after they have been trained in the standards for public access.
Applicants go through one to two weeks of intensive classes with the dogs. Afterward they spend a year in continued training.
According to Sarah, many applicants even live well outside the region, coming from as far as California for a Diggity Dog.
However, the nonprofit tries to help as many local people as possible. Most people looking for service dogs have to wait two to five years.
The fees are $10,000 to $25,000. Sarah says she tries to defray these costs by using rescue dogs and foster volunteers. She places dogs for $5,000.
The community supports Diggity Dogs. One of their patron saints is Joe Palmeri, a local business owner, who waived the rent of Diggity Dogs’ Mohawk Trail training center for its first six months. Hope & Olive in Greenfield, and The Rendezvous in Turners Falls, have helped raise funds. Central Connecticut River Valley Institute sponsored Diggity Dogs until it got its official nonprofit status.
One applicant who had a dog placed with her from a shelter has an autoimmune disorder. She has many difficulties that cause her to spend an enormous amount of time in the hospital, Sarah said.
The applicant, a violinist from Puerto Rico, was studying law. She was relocated to Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
Sarah says she recently received letters from her, and the doctors gave a remarkable testimony to the power of the service dog Diggity Dogs placed with her.
They reported a tremendous improvement physically. Her body is healing rapidly, and her symptoms have dropped. If they had known this would have had such an amazing effect on her life they would have prescribed it years ago, she said.
“Her emotional state being addressed with the help of the dog is helping her physical health,” Sarah adds.
“We are young, but the demand is overwhelming,” Sarah says. She explains she often gets more than one application a day. Many applicants need financial support to afford a service dog.
Diggity Dogs has a link on its website where people can support an applicant.
JAMIE LARUE, owner and marketing director of Pioneer Valley Gear Exchange, is and does so much more.
She’s a popular substitute teacher.
She’s a trained social worker.
She teaches and certifies kids and adults in American Red Cross First Aid and CPR.
She’s worked in Applied Behavioral Analysis for kids on the autism spectrum.
She’s active in Cub Scouts and on the PTO.
She sells Jamberry nail wrap.
And she has the cutest therapy dog, Pants, which, among other things, helps kids read.
“Pants is pretty cute and awesome. He’s a 12-year-old Pomeranian, and I’ve had him longer than I’ve had my children [Charlie and Grayson] and husband,” LaRue explains.
Pants, whose real name is Ralphie Willard Hamm LaRue, became known by a friend as Mr. Love Pants, and that got shortened to Pants.
“He was certified as a therapy dog when I became certified in therapy work. He works in foster care. He was just more of a comfort dog; I’d take him with me on home visits,” La Rue says.
“Kids would work toward spending time with him. Now he’s kind of retired; he’s more cat-like, and basks in the sun on the back of the couch. We also have a golden retriever and a Chesapeake Bay retriever.”
LaRue says she believes that animals in general are therapeutic, “and I would definitely say that therapy dogs are a huge tool for kids, from reading dogs to comfort dogs.”
Reading dogs, she says, are dogs that are trained to go to the library and just sit there and relax, so kids who have difficulty reading can read out loud to the dogs.
“And because it’s nonjudgmental — they don’t correct you, they don’t care if you’re right or wrong. You’re still doing what you need to do, and it’s comforting. It builds kids’ confidence by leaps and bounds,” LaRue says.
Service dogs can be trained in different areas There are seeing-eye dogs, hearing dogs, seizure dogs, and dogs that can sniff out low blood sugar.
LaRue says she would like to train her golden retriever as a service dog “but he’s the world’s worst dog.”
Pants gets his hair cut at Maplewood Hair Grooming in Shelburne Center, LaRue told The Flow’s reporters.
LaRue is scheduled to teach First Aid to our local Boy Scouts. First Aid is general care for wounds and breathing emergencies.
She says she contracts for this work with a lot of foster care agencies and adult day health facilities, and certifies their staffs.
The work saves lives.
“A woman took my class and she was very nervous and said she didn’t think she’d remember how to do it, and the very next day her dad had a heart attack and she knew what to do and she saved him,” LaRue explains.
Pants certainly gets around.
“My father-in-law does a lot of elder and estate law, so Pants has done nursing homes; he goes to the Sheffield Elementary School once a year for a reading group. His a visiting resource. He’s so much fun.”
According to LaRue, anybody can use a therapy dog:
“It’s been shown the dogs are soothing, but they also teach responsibility, so my kids on my caseload they had tasks they had to complete every week. If they did then there was a whole thing was they got to take the dog for a walk and brush him. It gave them something to work toward.”
HAWLEY—We woke up on Saturday morning at 6. When we were ready, we told Harper to load up in the back of my dad’s Chevy pick-up, where her crate waited. Then we headed out. We got to the field around 7 and stared our hunt.
Luckily, there was only one other hunter there with his dog, and we knew him, too. We both went our separate ways. (That’s why it’s a good idea to wear orange because we could see his orange from a good distance.)
We started off by going in the field with some tall grass around. There really were no birds that Harper saw or smelled In that area. You can tell when Harper gets a scent because her nose is at the ground and her tail goes back and forth really fast.
And as I mentioned in my previous column (“Pointing out hunter safety — and pheasant,” Features, November 2014), Harper isn’t trained that much. This was her first time hunting birds.
As we searched in that area we saw a bird fly up on the other side of the field. Then we heard a gunshot. The other hunter had shot but missed. My dad was hoping the bird would fly over to us so Harper could chase after it while he shot the bird.
Nothing else happened more exciting than that. Yes, Harper did a few points here and there, but they were not a steady point. So there were no birds in that section as far as we knew.
Then we headed down in the woods. There was more tall grass there, and swampy areas. The birds like those types of areas.
We also have a bell on Harper so we know where she is.
After a bit of searching in the woods we heard the other hunter fire again. We continued our journey in the woods. Again, Harper did mini points but not long enough for it to be a bird again.
Suddenly she lowered her body, dropped her nose to the ground, and swished her tail back and forth very fast. After a minute of this we knew a bird was here. We followed Harper, who was leading us to the bird. There were branches and thick brush everywhere, so it was going to be pretty hard to get a nice shot.
Harper circled the same spot until … a woodcock came up fast! Harper didn’t even have a chance to point. It was a struggle for my dad because he wasn’t expecting the bird because Harper hadn’t had a chance to point. He missed. But I get that: it was a hard shot with all those branches and how quick it was.
The woodcock didn’t go too far, though we didn’t see it again. We sloshed through the swampy area and back toward the field. Once again, Harper started to put her nose to the ground and got all excited. Her tail went back and forth super fast. But something was different this time. She was even more excited than before.
Once we got out in the field but were still at the edge of the woods,
Harper did a point and circled. Then she froze in this AMAZING point: She didn’t move a muscle. It was probably one of the most still and beautiful points ever. We knew there was a bird.
My dad moved toward her slowly, saying “Whoa.” Again she did not move a muscle. My dad got really close to her, and then said ‘Go!’
She darted, and out flew a hen pheasant. My dad shot and wounded the bird, which fell to the ground. To put it out of its misery he stepped on it. He said he wished he hadn’t had to do that. Hunters like to make a clean kill so no animal suffers.
What an amazing job Harper did for a dog not trained for this activity — and her first time!
Then a lot of other hunters showed up, and we left. When we got home we grilled the bird. It was delicious.
Kylie Lowell, grade 5, writes about nature and the hunting life for The Flow.
MANY BELOVED DOGS in the Shelburne Falls Area have Linda Rollins and her pack of dog mentors to thank for life. She says that her one-woman rescue organization, Better Than Dead, has saved 154 dogs, “one at a time,” in 11 years.
These were dogs facing the end of the line, she explained in a recent interview with Flow staffers.
She said she named her business after her many exclamations to her pack of dogs as they’d run in the fields or play along the river banks: “Isn’t this better than dead?”
Rollins said rescue work with the Humane Society following Hurricane Katrina was traumatizing. She recovered with the realization that there was more work to do.
According to Rollins, dogs need to be allowed to be themselves and heal in their own time among a nurturing pack.
And she knows dogs. She has this down. When asked how she rehabilitates them, she says: “I just let them be dogs.” She says she learned this approach through God and intuition.
And she said she lives a dog’s life. Her pack goes out three times a day. They run no matter the obstacle to Rollins; she had a broken foot for months and still got on her bike and took the dogs out daily.
She lets shy and damaged dogs heal themselves instead of pushing them to try new things. She doesn’t hurry to fix them.
She said she got her start in rescue work as a “go-to person” but after Katrina she began partnering with the Dakin Pioneer Valley Humane Society. She took in dogs that Dakin would have had to euthanize because, as she says, “they didn’t fit in with their program.”
Rollins brought 15 dogs to her home, rehabilitated them, and placed many with families in Shelburne Falls.
A Buckland-Shelburne Elementary School family (Bill Green, Catherine Fahy, and their children, Liam and Lilliana, spent four months working with Rollins in search of their perfect match. Bill was prepared to fly to Oregon to pick up a puppy. Rollins found them two puppies from Missouri: Lilac and Willy, who now are often seen around the school.
Rollins describes Lilac and Willy as spotted and adorable.
Surprisingly, the Northeast is short on dogs to adopt, as Green and Fahy discovered. Private adopters are getting dogs from the South, but without a safety net like Rollins provides, if it doesn’t work out … that gets to be tricky.
Rollins occasionally has to take a dog back that she places — this is no fault of the dogs, she says. She places them with new homes quickly, and it’s always worked out.
She said dogs face an uphill climb in escaping shelters. Dogs don’t present well in shelters, she says. “You don’t get the real dog. It’s stressful. When you get them from someone like me they come right out of the house.”
For those looking for ways to help, fostering is a short-term commitment with no financial obligation. Here’s how the business works: Rollins pays for food, supplies, and medical bills for dogs in her care. She finds her furry friends a foster home. The foster family meets the dog, takes the dog home, and stays in touch with Rollins.
With Brooke Looman and Joy Bohonowicz. For more information, write firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also find Better Than Dead on Facebook.
Independent, student-led media for the greater Shelburne Falls area