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Vista Nonprofit Trains Service Dogs To Help Wounded Veterans, Children With Autism

Evening Edition

Aired 12/27/13 on KPBS News.

Although some San Diegans claim their dogs are service dogs to bring them into stores and restaurants, many people genuinely need a service dog's assistance.

Susan White stands with her service dog Valko in the training room at Vista nonprofit Tender Loving Canines Assistance Dogs. Valko, a quiet and calm German shepherd, wears a harness and a bright red vest that says, "Disability Assistance Dog, Do Not Distract."

"Now if I were to lose my balance, I can catch myself by pushing right here on his shoulders. He doesn't move away," White said as she leaned on Valko's back. "And he actually saved me from falling twice the first week that I had him."

White has had Valko since July, and has been using a service dog for four years. The dogs help her with cerebral palsy.

"He just gives me really a feeling of well being and safety," she said. "I'm afraid of falling and having broken bones."

Although some San Diegans claim their dogs are service dogs to bring them into stores and restaurants, many people like White genuinely need a service dog's assistance.

Service dogs have been so important to White that she began looking for a way to give back. So she started volunteering with Tender Loving Canines, which trains dogs to help wounded veterans and children with autism.

Service dog Valko rests at the feet of his owner Susan White. White has cerebral palsy and uses Valko to help her balance.

Dogs are trained to do physical tasks, like picking up dropped phones and credit cards, but also learn to help their owners emotionally, said Alan Berlin, the nonprofit's business operations manager.

"(The owner) may not want to enter a dark house, so the dog can go in ahead of them and turn on the light," Berlin said. "If a wounded warrior with PTSD is in a line, the crowd around them may cause them to feel anxious. The dog can walk behind, giving them a space."

Tender Loving Canines is one of many local nonprofits that train service animals. Others include San Diego's Paws'itive Teams and Little Angels in Santee.

Eight dogs are currently being trained at Tender Loving Canines, but Berlin is hoping to boost that number to meet demand. People apply for dogs and pay for them on a sliding scale. It costs $20,000 to raise and train a service dog, so the nonprofit relies on donations.

Dog trainer Courtney Morman works with Zephyr, a service dog in training, at Tender Loving Canines in Vista.

Courtney Morman, a dog trainer with Tender Loving Canines, is working with Zephyr, an 18-month-old Labradoodle. Although she's not sure yet whether Zephyr will be given to someone with autism, PTSD, or a physical disability, he's already well schooled in assistance.

"He can open a door, he can put things in baskets, and that can translate into loading the laundry, putting things in trash cans, putting things in buckets, baskets, anything," Morman said.

Morman said dogs like Zephyr can also help autistic children who are struggling socially, sometimes just by being a conversation starter.

"When they have a dog like this, now they can go up to their peers and talk about their dog, now they have something," she said.

In Tender Loving Canines' training room, Zephyr opens doors, picks up phones and flips light switches, all at Morman's command. He won't finish his training until later this year, but he already seems like something to talk about.

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