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Can Do Canines: Making a Difference

Interview with Founder and Executive Director, Alan Peters

10/1/2019 2:57:39 PM

Collage of people with their hearing dogs doing various activities

Tell us about Can Do Canines. How did your organization begin and what is your mission?

I founded the organization in 1987. I was interested in doing something with dogs that would encourage mutually beneficial relationships between people and dogs. My wife was an audiologist and learned about hearing dogs being trained in California. She brought back some information and that encouraged me to approach both the deaf and the hard-of-hearing communities to see if there was interest in having hearing dogs trained here. The response was very positive and I decided to begin a program in Minnesota. Can Do Canines is dedicated to enhancing the quality of life for people with disabilities by creating mutually beneficial partnerships with specially trained dogs.

I understand that Can Do Canines provides service animals that specialize in different areas such as seeing-eye dogs, seizure disorders, hearing dogs, etc. Could you share a little information about how dogs are trained for each specialty?

We train five specific types of dogs to help with different needs. When necessary, we can train one dog to help with two of these disabilities.

Hearing Assist Dogs alert their deaf or hard-of-hearing partners to a variety of everyday sounds they cannot hear, like an alarm clock, telephone, doorbell or oven timer, and potentially life-threatening noises, like an intruder or a smoke alarm.

Mobility Assist Dogs help people with physical disabilities by retrieving objects, pulling wheelchairs, opening doors, and getting an emergency phone. They are specially trained for the needs of our client.

Diabetes Assist Dogs detect low blood sugar levels for people with type one diabetes complicated with hypoglycemic unawareness. The dog senses a change in the smell of their partner’s breath and then alerts their partner by touching them in a significant way.

Autism Assist Dogs keep children with autism safe in public settings and help them experience the world more fully by offering comfort and assurance. These special dogs also serve as a social bridge between the family and the public.

Seizure Assist Dogs respond to a person having a seizure by licking their face, retrieving an emergency phone, and alerting other family members. They are custom trained for the needs of the individual.

How many hearing dogs and individuals are matched each year? Is there any kind of waiting list?

Since we trained the first hearing dog in 1989 we have trained and graduated 205 hearing dogs. The number we train each year varies. For example, we have trained 10 during 2015, seven during 2016, six during 2017. Ten of our hearing dogs also served a person who had a second disability as well. The wait for a hearing dog is not usually very long, varying between a few months and a year. We have a longer wait for diabetes and autism dogs.

How does one apply for a service animal? Are there things that individuals should consider before applying?

Applying is a combination of an application, an in-home interview, getting references and completing medical forms, including an audiogram. For a hearing dog placement to be successful it is best if the applicant expects to be living in a fairly stable situation for the next year. So this is not something to do when you are about to move to a new home or expecting some other significant life event. However, we always do our best to make it work.

In 2017, Can Do Canines proposed a law that made it illegal to "misrepresent an unqualified animal as a service animal and subjects violators to a penalty." In August of 2018, it was signed into law. There are many people who think that people falsely claiming their pets as service animals are harmless. Why do you think this law is important? 

What this law does is create consequences for pretending to have a disability and pretending to have a service dog. Previously, deceiving the public was improper and maybe unethical, but it was not illegal. Making this practice illegal changes public perception. It also gives local police the right to step in when there is a perceived problem.

How has the rise in falsely labeled service animals affected your organization? How has it affected the people with service animals?

A real service dog will be calm, quiet, well-behaved and unobtrusive in public. Imposters are often agitated, aggressive or anxious around other dogs, pulling at the end of the leash, barking, sniffing, urinating, begging or a combination of these behaviors. The public often can't tell the difference and begin to assume that these misbehaved dogs are really service dogs. It is unfair to people who have real disabilities and well-trained service dogs.

Are there ways that individuals can participate in your organization such as volunteering?

We have a variety of opportunities to volunteer, from helping at the office to working on fundraisers to raising a puppy. There are many choices outlined on our website. Or a reader can email or call our volunteer coordinators to discuss options.

Our graduates often help by giving presentations or introducing friends and family to our organization. Fundraising is an important part of what we do, as the training of both the person and the dog are provided free of charge.

What has been your favorite part of working at Can Do Canines?

This is difficult to answer because there are so many great benefits of working at Can Do Canines! Here are three of my favorites.

1. I get to meet so many wonderful people while doing this job including clients, staff, and volunteers. Everyone is dedicated to the mission and we are all working together to provide these well-trained canine helpers to those people who need them. It's just great to be part of this team.

2. Witnessing these special dogs changing and sometimes saving the lives of our clients feels really good. Knowing that we are making a real difference in our client's lives makes hard work and long hours feel well worth the effort.

3. Of course, high on the list is working with these wonderful and hard-working canines. They are smart, talented and dedicated workers, but they can also be goofy, fun-loving companions who are blind to color and disability, and love you for who you are without reservation. I am a lucky guy to work here!

All photos provided by Can Do Canines.

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