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Woodstock school trains service dogs — and masters

by: David F. Ashton, Paws To Freedom client Joanne Bryngelson says the organization has, with the help of her service dog Sadie, gotten her out of the house, and enjoying life again.

Owners bringing their dogs to the lower level of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church on S.E. 39th Avenue aren't coming for a class to help correct Fido's bad habits.

'Welcome to Paws to Freedom, Inc. a nonprofit service dog team training, support, and education organization,' greeted Mara Windstar, the organization's founder.

When we visited during an April 6th open house, Windstar explained that 'service dogs' assist individuals with disabilities. 'Some people have visible disabilities; they use a wheelchair or move mobility device. Other people have 'invisible disabilities' like a psychiatric condition, diabetes, or a seizure disorder. The dogs are trained to have public access skills, as well as the special skills needed by the client.'

Public access skills, she noted, are those that help the client move about in the outside world - like going to stores, or going to work. 'Dogs can be trained to retrieve items, help with doors, and much more. Specifically, what each one is trained to do all depends on the handler and the disabilities.'

Some dogs, Windstar continued, can detect impending seizures. 'But all dogs can be trained for seizure response, whether or not they can detect it. They can be trained to push a button that is tied to a telephone, to call for help for example. Often they stay with the person. If the dog is right up against the person, lying against them, they can shorten the length of the seizure.'

Other dogs can be trained to help owners with diabetes. 'They can be trained to detect low blood sugar. This can be lifesaving for some people - for people prone to have frequent or unexpected blood sugar drops.'

Since Windstar began by training her own service dog in 2001, she and her volunteers have worked with a total of 23 service dogs.

'We've learned that not all dogs are suited for the program. We've also learned that training is a big commitment. The handler must be willing to work the dog, '24/7'. One of my jobs is to figure out how the owner can schedule training. It's very different from pet dog training.'

At the open house, a client, Joanne Bryngelson, talked about the Paws to Freedom, Inc. program. She appeared to be calm and relaxed, as she lauded the organization and its volunteers, although she said, 'I have really high level anxiety and agoraphobia.'

It was her therapist, Bryngelson recalled, who suggested a service dog, and told her about the organization.

'The biggest difference that Sadie, my service dog, makes in my life, is that I can go out in public and enjoy myself. I'm here today and I'm talking to you, and I feel pretty calm. It's amazing. It's just really easy to just stay inside, but it's so destructive - I don't want to spend the rest of my life indoors.'

As for the organization itself, Windstar commented, 'We are an all-volunteer program; we all do it because we love it. We're committed to people being able to be more independent.'

Learn more about their program online by visiting: www.PawsToFreedom.org, or by calling 503/231-2555.