EmBARKing on the journey of a Career Service Dog with Freedom Service Dogs

7 min read

Freedom Service Dogs is a non-profit organization based in Colorado, USA that prepares and matches assistance dogs with individuals living with “autism, traumatic brain injury (TBI), multiple sclerosis (MS), muscular dystrophy (MD), Down Syndrome, cerebral palsy (CP), spinal cord injuries,” and veterans with post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD).

Freedom Service Dogs is a proud accredited member of the Assistance Dogs International (ADI), fostering healthy environments and programs to achieve long-lasting, successful matches for the service dog and the clients they serve. The 40-staff members and countless volunteers of Freedom Service Dogs have helped more than 550 individuals gain independence, live safely, and enhance the quality of their everyday life as well as strengthen relationships with family and friends.

Rimini Street Foundation had the honor of interviewing Erin Conley (Director of Communications) and Nadine Pace (Events and Community Partnerships Manager) to learn more about the life-changing services provided by Freedom Service Dogs as well as its story of growth since its inception in 1987.

Rimini Street Foundation (RSF): Thank you for spending this time with us to educate us about Freedom Service Dogs. We learned about your services through one of our colleagues, Jeremy Sayler who is volunteering as one of your puppy raisers. Can you tell us a little bit more about the history of Freedom Service Dogs?

Erin Conley (EC): Sure! We were founded in 1987 by Michael Roche who lost the use of his legs in an accident while working as a paramedic. Michael met his future wife, PJ, who happened to be a dog trainer, and they had pet dog named Oreo. Together, they trained Oreo to help Michael with small tasks around the house such as opening drawers, picking things up off the floor, and even pulling Michael’s wheelchair! They realized with the help of Oreo, Michael’s quality of life and independence improved, and they wanted to help other people with disabilities experience more freedom with assistance of a service dog. With this goal in mind, Freedom Service Dogs was established.

The nonprofit organization started small, helping people with mobility limitations and over the years, expanded to help provide support to our nation’s heroes, veterans trying to adjust to civilian life and living with PTSD, as well as children with autism and other neurocognitive disabilities.

The 90 clients on our waiting list deserve dogs that are physically and temperamentally best suited for work as highly skilled, dependable service dogs—and they deserve to receive those dogs in a timely manner. By breeding for the characteristics we require in FSD service dogs, we will have greater control over the genetics and temperament of the dogs in our program, which will lead to more dogs graduating, more quickly, as successful service dogs. This strategic change will ensure that FSD continues to transform the lives of individuals with disabilities.

FSD breeds and trains Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, standard poodles, and mixes of these breeds.

RSF: How do you deal with the ethical concerns about breeding?

EC: We always have the dog’s best interest and wellbeing in mind. The mamas only breed 4-5 times and they live with a guardian home during the time they are not breeding. When they are retired after 4-5 litters, the guardian homes they lived with before have the first chance to adopt them, and they often do! This is incredibly important to us to ensure that our dogs have a wonderful and happy life.

RSF: That makes a lot of sense. So, what are the best breeds to train as service dogs?

EC: Labradors! They are so smart, love people, and are very food motivated. Labs also are happy to work, and they enjoy working. We always make sure that “our dogs wag while they work,” because it is important for them to be happy doing what they’re doing. If they show us that they aren’t happy, they become “Career Change Dogs” and we have a waiting list of people waiting to adopt them. We really value the dogs’ desire to work, and we don’t want to ever force them to do something that they don’t want to do.

RSFThat is really insightful. Obviously, there is great care behind Freedom Service Dog’s methodology. Can you share with us what the training and adoption program is like?

EC: It is a lengthy process, but we’ll start all the way from birth! When the puppies are a few days old, we follow a protocol called “Puppy Culture,” designed to expose puppies to different types of environments and experiences. For instance, we might take cotton swabs and touch the bottoms of their paws or lay them on different types of surfaces. It’s all about socializing the pups from a young age so that as they grow and learn they can become confident and curious about the world around them.

We have an amazing staff that takes care of the puppies while they are nursing with their mom during the first 8 weeks. It’s a crucial window where everything is designed to set them up to be well-socialized, happy and healthy. We monitor them 24/7. At this stage, they are very fragile and we want to make sure they’re all doing okay. It’s very important to have the bond between a mom and her babies and we’re giving them that time together, but there are daily things we do during that time with the hope of helping them to become successful service dogs someday.

We partner with a few different prisons in Colorado and at 8 weeks, the puppies may go live with an inmate for two months through the Prison-Trained K-9 Companion Program. Most of the puppies will then live with a volunteer puppy raiser. We have over 100 puppy raisers who will have them for 10-12 months to help them with basic obedience, crate training, potty training, and socialization. It’s all very carefully organized to help set the puppies up to blossom into service dogs as they mature.

We receive heartfelt letters from inmates who, through the program, feel they have a chance to give back and change someone else’s life for the better. It’s really amazing – we are very happy to have that partnership.

RSF: I’m sure many of the inmates are feeling isolated and have PTSD — many of the things veterans go through. Maybe those factors even contributed to being in prison in the first place. The K9 companion program sounds like a really wonderful way for both parties to benefit.

EC: Yeah, it definitely is. We absolutely love it. While the puppies are with inmates or with the puppy raisers, there are a lot of milestones to look out for, so we always have our eyes on the puppies. Sometimes health or behavior concerns will come up and we’ll put them up for adoption before they even go through the full-service dog training. Becoming a service dog is simply not for every dog.

Nadine Pace (NP): There are many reasons in-training dogs don’t quite make it as a service dog, but that does not prevent them from being a great pet. Sometimes they have sensitive stomachs and need special food – these can be quite expensive and burdensome for the clients we serve, and we definitely don’t want to add to their expenses, especially as some conditions can require a great deal of out out-of-pocket costs. Sometimes the dog can’t stop chasing squirrels. We are incredibly selective because we’ve learned from past experiences that trying to push dogs through the program and hoping it will work out, won’t.

RSF: What are some of the frustrations or misunderstandings regarding service dogs?

EC: So much of it revolves around our clients and people with disabilities. In general, it is difficult when they’re out in public and people are trying to pet the dog or distracting them while working. It’s difficult, not only for our clients who have visible disabilities, but also invisible disabilities like PTSD. It may look like the dog is just laying at their owner’s feet, but they are working.

Frustrations lie not only with all the misinformation that’s out there about service dogs, but also the fact that the etiquette of how to interact with service dogs is so unknown. The best thing one can do when you see a service dog is to pretend that the dog is not there at all.

Some of our clients have said that people will talk to the dog as if the person is not there. We want people to interact with the clients on a human level – the dog is there to assist them. If you want to ask questions about the dog, ask the person.

RSFThank you for that very important insight. We tend to forget these dogs are busy carrying on lifesaving work even if they are just sitting there looking adorable as can be! Can you please share with us some of your favorite success stories?

NP: [LAUGHS] Well, both Erin and I have fostered and fallen in love with dogs in the past.

EC: We have written testimonials and video from clients. There are so many wonderful success stories – it’s hard to pick one. But thinking about veterans – it’s really touching when we hear from them that their dog changed their life, got them out of their basement hideaway, that they’re watching their kids play sports again.

Some people have said that their dog has saved their marriage or even their lives. Having a sense of purpose and meaning in their life has helped some people get out of that darkness. And that’s just incredible.

More recently, one of our clients who is a young father, probably in his 30s, he was in a BMX racing accident that left him with a spinal cord injury. He now has a service dog named Miso. While he is not able to do all the things he wanted to do with his young children, Miso is helping him have more independence and additional assistance not only for him but also his entire family. The love in that sweet dog has spread through the whole family and brought them closer together.

Your life can change in an instant and I’m really glad as an organization that we are here for people, to provide a little help for all the struggles that they have. I’m especially thrilled that we are able to provide the dogs free of charge because so many of our clients have ASTRONOMICAL medical bills.

RSF: How much does one partnership cost?

ECApproximately $30,000-50,000.

RSF: If you could share one message to the public, what would it be?

EC: Service dogs are crucial, valuable partners to the people that they assist, and they play a very important role for that person. They can really change their life.

RSF: And for the everyday person who isn’t involved in this world, how can they be a partner or ally?

NP: Advocate for people with disabilities, advocate for service dog use. Spread the word for us, make a donation – there are always essentials we need for the facilities and for the partnerships.

EC: We have a Wish List on Amazon (link)– also shopping on Amazon Smile with Freedom Service Dogs as your selected charity is incredibly helpful. There are many service dog schools across the country that always are in need of volunteers and puppy raisers. If you’re able, that’s a great way to have a dog in your life and a hand in really changing someone else’s life.

Rimini Street Foundation is a proud financial supporter of Freedom Service Dogs. Learn more about Freedom Service Dogs’ programs and the lives they have enhanced through their matching and volunteer programs by visiting: www.freedomservicedogs.org.