MADISON (WKOW) -- For nearly three decades Wisconsin Academy for Graduate Service Dogs, known as WAGS, has trained and found homes for more than 100 dogs who help people with mobility issues or other illnesses.
One of those dogs, Toula, is growing up at WKOW. Her trainer Jesi Hartman is a WKOW employee, so here at 27 News we've gotten a glimpse of the joys and struggles of that two-year training process.
9-month-old Toula is making great progress. In addition to the basic commands most dogs know, she's learning all kinds of skills she'll hopefully one day use to help a future client get around.
"It all starts with something really light and simple, like a cabinet door, and we start that at probably around five months or so and then that turns into nudging the fridge door closed and other harder objects, and that also turns to nosing the handicapped buttons that open doors out in the public," says Hartman.
Toula has also learned to retrieve items, pull open her cage or the refrigerator, pick up her leash and many more skills.
The trainers work with a puppy from eight weeks old until about a year, when they swap dogs and a new trainer works on more advanced skills and refinement. It takes about two years for a dog to get to the point of graduating the program and ready to be placed with a client. Unfortunately though, not all dogs make it. Some have to be retired and adopted as a pet, because of health or temperament.
The trainers work with the WAGS dogs at home and in their daily lives, as well as at the WAGS training facility on the east side of Madison. WAGS holds group meetings every other week to work together to keep the dogs on track with their skill development.
"The dogs get together and it helps them get socialized with other dogs, they learn to be relaxed around other dogs, how to play appropriately, things like that," says program director Sarah Sirios. "For the trainers ... the camaraderie is good, the group support, and we do a lot of troubleshooting."
27 News visited a training session where the dogs practiced remaining calm when faced with distractions, staying focused, and working on assistance skills like turning light switches on and off and handing a credit card to a cashier at the store.
It can be a challenging process for both dog and trainer. After all, the trainees aren't robots, they're dogs, Sirios points out. They get distracted, want to play and have bad days, just like people do.
Hartman has been working with Toula since fall and the puppy has certainly become a part of the family. Hartman says it will be hard when it comes time to send her on to the next step in the training process, but worthwhile.
"There's always tears when I say goodbye," she says. "There's tears for my coworkers because they get attached, there's tears for my family and friends because they all learned and loved the dogs that I work with, but once they get placed and are starting to be with that person and help them in so many ways it really makes it OK."
Hartman has been a volunteer with WAGS for three years. Toula is the fourth dog she's worked with, all three before her graduated and are working with clients.
Seven dogs and volunteer trainers are with WAGS right now. The organization doesn't have the staff to work with more than that and is losing some volunteer trainers this year.
Right now, 10 to 15 people are waiting to be matched with a dog. Typically, Sirios says clients wait a year or two before they can get a service dog.
A volunteer doesn't have to have training before joining WAGS. The organization starts from the beginning to ensure the dogs get quality care.
If you're interested in helping, or learning more about WAGS, call Sarah Sirios at (608) 250-9247 or visit the WAGS website at www.wags.net.