Canine companions get off to a good start in Janesville

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Catherine W. Idzerda
March 22, 2015

JANESVILLE—In the basement of Alison and Dave Viemeister's home, a line of framed dog photos wraps two walls.

Each is a credit to caninekind, shining examples of what it means to be a “good dog.”

Well, except for Heaton, who ate a rock at four months and didn't make it through surgery. And Jafar, who was a very good boy, indeed, but couldn't get over his own insecurities.

All of them—Promise, Ted, Icia, Ber, Heaton, Rett, Telly, Tar, Gai, Helike, Opie, Jafar, Oberlin, and Padgitt—were trained to be service dogs for people with disabilities.

Alison has been doing the work since 1998. Her now-husband, Dave, joined her in 2006.

Recently, dog No. 15, Ezra, arrived at their home and is beginning his journey to canine greatness.

So far, his skills are limited to gnawing on things, napping, eating and going hurry in the yard—but more about this later.

It started when Alison Viemeister was in seventh grade and read “Follow My Leader,” a book about a boy who goes blind after a firecracker accident.

“He went to get a service dog, and he had to learn how to maneuver with the dog,” Viemeister said. “In the story, somebody had trained that dog, and I thought, 'Some day, I'm going to do that.'”

In 1998, after her own dog died, she realized she was in the perfect place to become a dog trainer. She had a good job as a Janesville School District teacher, the financial wherewithal and a stable life.

After doing the research, she decided to apply for a position with Canine Companions for Independence. The company doesn't charge people with disabilities for the dogs.

The going rate for a trained dog is about $6,000, and that can be a significant burden for families and single adults living on disability payments, Viemeister said.

She applied, went through a short training and was pronounced ready to go.

“At the time, I said to my mom, 'I don't think I can do this,'” Viemeister said.

Shortly after that conversation, she was picking up her first dog.

The dogs come from Canine Companions breeding stock, and are carefully selected to make sure they have the best health and temperaments. Volunteer breeders raise them for several weeks before they are sent for the next step in their training.

Volunteers such as the Viemeisters teach the dogs 30 commands.

The first command is “sit.”

At about the same time, dogs learn is “go hurry,” which means go to the bathroom.

“It's not that they have to go fast, it just means go to the bathroom,” Viemeister said.

Someone with a disability might not be able to take the dog out anytime he or she wants to go, so the dog is trained to go to fit the person's schedule.

There's “up,” as in get into the car or on the couch. There's also “up” as in put your paws here so you can turn a light off and on.

“Heal” means go to the right side, “side” means go to the left.

They have to understand the concept “out,” as in “get out of the kitchen until we clean up the broken glass,” and “release” which means “now you can take it easy and act like a dog.”

Some dogs are easier to teach than others.

Oberlin learned all his commands but refused to jump up into the car.

He knew the command but just didn't want to do it.

“He was just stubborn,” Dave Viemeister said.

Ezra knows “sit” and is learning “hurry,” but the Viemeisters aren't sure if he understands his own name yet.

Along with the 24-7 duties of training a puppy, the Viemeisters pay between $2,000 and $2,500 for vet bills, food and other items.

After the first few weeks, the dogs go everywhere with the couple. When Alison Viemeister trains for triathlons at the district pool, the dog is there, ears up, watching her glide back and forth through the water.

Eventually, the dog puts its head on its paws, content to know she is safe.

The dog accompanies Viemeister to Franklin Middle School, often spending the day resting in a kennel.

Her students like having the animal in the classroom, even though they are not allowed to pet him.

Isn't a dog a distraction?

“In some people's room, a goldfish is a distraction,” Viemeister said.

Each dog responds differently to the classroom.

“Padgett used to wait in the hall when the kids went to art or phy ed,” Viemeister said. “Those were his friends, and he was waiting for them to come back.”

The kids know, too, that they can't leave a pencil on the floor, or an eraser, because the dog might eat it.

Often, the dog becomes a vicarious pet.

“Even though they can't pet him, they know he cares,” she said. “It's that unconditional love. The dog doesn't care if they are wearing the same clothes they wore yesterday because they didn't have clean laundry. The dog doesn't care if they didn't brush their teeth.”

When Dave Viemeister takes the dog to St Paul's Lutheran School, where he is a music teacher, he can see the kids sort of exhale and relax. All the struggles and pains of childhood evaporate.

“It's pure love,” Dave said.

The dog has the ability to make the kids kinder and gentler, even if it's just for a little while, Alison Viemeister said.

When one of the dogs had an “accident” in her classroom, the kids were horrified—and then laughed at the dog.

The dog hung his head, knowing he had failed and his “friends” were laughing at him.

When the kids realized they had hurt his feelings, they apologized.

After 15 to 18 months of training, the dogs go back to Canine Companions for Independence for more advanced training.

With a few exceptions, the dogs graduate and go on to serve people with disabilities. Children with autism, returning veterans and adults with multiple physical and cognitive disabilities get an animal with the practical skills they need.

One woman has a problem closing her mouth and has to wear bandanas around her neck to catch the drool. The dog can untied her bandana and bring her another one.

A boy with autism uses a service animal to keep him focused, reducing public meltdowns.

They don't all make it, of course.

Poor Heaton ate a rock when he was still a puppy and didn't make it through the surgery.

To give him credit, the rock was probably delicious.

Jafar was afflicted with a modern malady: low self-esteem. If he didn't do a task perfectly, he would sulk and get down on himself.

Jafar was released to a good home, where he is happy being apart of a family.

Dave Viemeister is convinced the animals are angels come to earth.

Alison Viemeister doesn't quite take that metaphysical view, but she believes in their usefulness and the unadulterated love they give her family, her students and the individuals they go on to serve.

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