An IUPUI professor trains service dogs
By David Schroeder
‘There’s a dog under that desk,’ is a thought that keeps running through my head during my time with Dr. Patricia Clark, professor of biology here at IUPUI. Clark is a volunteer trainer for the Indiana Canine Assistant Network and there is a Golden Retriever-Labrador mix named Duke sleeping under her desk.
ICAN is an organization whose mission is to train dogs to assist people with disabilities in their everyday lives. The dogs are taught to do everything from sitting, to putting socks on their owner, and some are even taught to detect drops in blood sugar, a huge help for diabetic owners.
Dr. Clark grew up on a farm and had always wanted to raise a guide dog, but organizations that do this kind of work can be hard to come by. One day by chance, Dr. Clark came across someone with a puppy that was clearly in training. The trainer pointed Clark towards the ICAN program and everything expanded from there.
Duke and Dr. Patricia Clark take a break after training at IUPUI.
Photo by David Schroeder
“I have to tell you, my mindset went from ‘I want to do this because I want to do this’ to realizing that the purpose for this, what the dogs can do for their clients, is phenomenal,” Clark said recalling the first time she saw the dogs with the people they would later assist through life.
Duke slept under Clark’s desk as we talked. He didn’t seem to mind the commotion going on around him as his eyes remained closed and his paws twitched as if he was chasing squirrels in his dreams. When Clark put her lips together making a kissing noise, Duke immediately awoke from his slumber. He rose and walked toward Clark, ready for instruction. To reward Duke for his quick reaction, Clark reached into a small blue pouch and gave Duke a piece of dog food. This is key to the ICAN program, positive reinforcement.
The trainers don’t command the dogs, they “ask” them.
ICAN has a strict positive reinforcement policy, which requires that they only reward the dogs for positive behavior and ignore the dog’s bad behaviors. For example, if Duke were to jump on Clark, she would not tell him no or push him down, but would instead turn her back and ignore him until the behavior stopped. She said this way of training ensures the only time the dog gets any attention is for positive behavior.
Dogs in the ICAN program go through nearly two years of training before it is determined if they can become assisted living dogs. There are no government regulations regarding service dogs, so it is of the utmost importance that programs like ICAN maintain their standards and enforce them with consistency. There are regulatory bodies that oversee service dogs and the groups that train them. Membership is voluntary, similar to the Better Business Bureau. ICAN is the only service dog program in Indiana accredited by Assistance Dogs International.
During the first 20 months of an ICAN dog’s life, they spend a large amount of time inside of prison. ICAN utilizes residents of Indiana prisons to help train the dogs. The dogs rotate between six weeks in prison and three weeks with trainers like Clark for reinforcement and evaluation.
These handlers are not a minor part of the process. They care for and train the dogs 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They’re there to, “care for and teach their dogs the skills needed to become successful service dogs,” Clark said. This program also helps the prison handlers in numerous ways. It’s a new item on a resume, and it instills a sense of purpose and accomplishment for those involved.
“Can you imagine the privilege of having an animal in prison?“ Clark said. "I don’t know all of the requirements for selection, but it’s very stringent with regards to their behavior.”
“But what it does for everyone involved is just amazing,” she said. “The prisoners who stick with it tend to get jobs faster once they’re released.”
After the first 20 months, the dogs are evaluated to see if they are capable of being assisted living dogs and to try and narrow down what kind of assisted living dog they might be. The needs of ICAN’s client’s ranges from vertigo problems to an individual who needs help opening and closing cabinets.
How the dog interacts with people is also very important. A client with brittle bone disease will always need a gentler dog, while that may not be the most important aspect for a client with autism.
Once a client and dog are paired together, more specific training takes place. A client with diabetes may have their dog trained to recognize when their blood sugar is low, while a more mobility-impaired client may need their dog trained to help them put their socks on and off. This client specific training is crucial to providing dogs capable of fulfilling all of their needs.
Duke is a very good dog. The entire time that Clark and I spoke, Duke slept patiently under the desk. When Clark called him, he promptly responded while wearing a large dog smile. Clark told me about some of the things Duke is trained to do, such as closing cabinets when given the command to “push” or to cuddle his face in your lap when he’s asked to “visit.”
When we went outside to take photos, Clark was ready to show off what Duke could do before we even got out of the building. As we walked down the hallway of the Engineering, Science and Technology building, Duke walked right next to Clark, constantly looking up at her as he was trained to do.
Duke kept pace with Dr. Clark perfectly, slowing down or speeding up as she did, all without a word being said. Even when walking down stairs, Duke kept perfect pace with Clark.
When we got outside, it was even more clear how well Duke had been trained. Clark stopped at the entrance to a door to show how Duke could open handicap doors with his nose. The entire time there was a constant flow of students that Duke barely acknowledged. The size, shape or place of a button does not confuse him.
Duke was almost at the end of his training with Clark. When asked if it’s difficult to give the dogs back, Clark said with emphasis that these dogs would help the people they will go on to live with.
“The first time I saw these dogs with the people they help, it changed it all for me,” She said. “It made me see the purpose of what we are doing.”
ICAN’s 4th annual Puppy Love Valentine
In August, ICAN had a BIG surprise when two of their breeder dogs, Holly and Jamie (along with daddy Forrest) gave birth to 19 pups only six days apart! Two months prior to that, Mama Alpine and Daddy Kash provided us a litter of six Golden Retrievers! These six and eight month old pups will be taking a break from their training to deliver Puppy Love Valentine gift boxes throughout the greater Indianapolis area!
ICAN is excited about this year’s gift box items in addition to giving supporters the option to send an original dog art painting (done by their very own four-legged friends)! Better yet, Indianapolis Yellow Cab will be providing transportation for their volunteers making deliveries in the downtown area!
Puppy Love Valentines is a special fundraiser held each year to support ICAN’s mission. This heartfelt event continues to raise more than $20,000 each year. Last year, our deliveries filled up quickly, so don’t delay in ordering!
What can you do to help ICAN?
- Donate. It cost over $26,000 to raise a service dog so every penny helps
- If you have the time and would like to be a trainer like Clark, go to ICANdog.org and
sign up to become one. They also list event opportunities if you’d like to help in that way.
- Spread awareness. ICAN is primarily a volunteer program so even if you can’t help out, maybe
you know someone who can.