SE Portland school trains service dogs – and masters

It’s ore than your ordinary obedience school. See how this organization helps folks with a wide variety of disabilities have richer lives, thanks to their helpful pooch …

“Paws To Freedom” client Joanne Bryngelson says the organization has, with the help of her service dog Sadie, gotten her get out of the house and enjoying life again.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
Owners bringing their dogs to the lower level of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church on SE 39th Avenue aren’t coming to help correct Fido’s bad habits.

“Welcome to Paws to Freedom, Inc. a non-profit service dog team training, support, and education organization,” greeted Mara Windstar, the organization’s founder.

When we visited during an open house, not long ago, 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 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 to work. “Dogs that can be trained to retrieve items, help with doors, and turn on flights. Specifically what they do all depends on their handler and the disabilities.”

Lifesaving skills learned
Some dogs, Windstar continued, can detect the seizure. “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 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 help the length of the seizure become shorter.”

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 that have frequent or unexpected blood sugar drops.”

Trained 23 service dogs
Since Windstar started training her own service dog in 2001, she and her volunteers have by now 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 have schedule training. It’s very different from pet dog training.”

Partners in 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.

Speaking about the reason she sought a service dog, Bryngelson explained, “I have really high level anxiety and agoraphobia.”

It was her therapist, Bryngelson recalled, that 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 stay inside, but it’s so destructive; I don’t want to spend the rest of my life indoors.”

On the way out, Windstar commented, “We are an all-volunteer program; we’ll 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.

© 2008 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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