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Handi-Dogs helps pets be more than best friends
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Handi-Dogs helps pets be more than best friends

  • Sheila Hawkins and her dog Sonny accept a service dog training certificate at the Handi-Dogs graduation ceremony Wednesday.
    Christina Dawidowicz/TucsonSentinel.comSheila Hawkins and her dog Sonny accept a service dog training certificate at the Handi-Dogs graduation ceremony Wednesday.
  • Jessica Turner talks about her time spent at Handi-Dogs with her service dog, Mr. Darcy, and her son, Malcolm.
    Christina Dawidowicz/TucsonSentinel.comJessica Turner talks about her time spent at Handi-Dogs with her service dog, Mr. Darcy, and her son, Malcolm.
  • Thomas Young and his mental health service dog, D.O.G., accept their service dog training certificate from Joanie Mauger at the Handi-Dogs graduation ceremony.
    Christina Dawidowicz/TucsonSentinel.comThomas Young and his mental health service dog, D.O.G., accept their service dog training certificate from Joanie Mauger at the Handi-Dogs graduation ceremony.
  • Denise Wetzler and her service dog, Sweet Pea.
    Christina Dawidowicz/TucsonSentinel.comDenise Wetzler and her service dog, Sweet Pea.

People in need of a service animal can train their own dog with the help of a Tucson nonprofit.

Instead of getting a new animal, Handi-Dogs allows those in need to transform their best friend into a certified service dog.

"We're all about the human/dog bond," said Jonie Mauger, the organization's president.

Training a service dog takes about 18 months, said Glenda Laird, training coordinator of Handi-Dogs.

Dogs are taught basic obedience first, then assistance tasks and how to behave in public, including shops and restaurants.

"Their job is to help their owner with a disability," said Laird.

Handi-Dogs, 75 S. Montego Dr., hosted a service dog graduation Wednesday.

"Since March 2011, eight people have graduated from the program. That's phenomenal," said Mauger before handing out certificates to the latest group of graduates.

Jessica Turner and her Labrador Retriever, Mr. Darcy, were among the graduates. Mr. Darcy trained to be a service dog for Turner's autistic 6-year-old son, Malcolm.

Turner wanted a dog that could alert her if her son has low oxygen levels. Malcolm hates being confined, especially when Turner has to hold on to him, she said. Instead, Turner attaches him to Mr. Darcy with a child restraint harness which gives him enough independence.

"It prevents tantrums," Turner said.

The smallest dog trained by Handi-Dogs was a seven-pound Pomeranian named Tucker. The heaviest: Hooch, a Rottweiler.

All breeds are accepted into the program, just "as long as the dog has the temperament," Laird said.

Rain, a mixed-breed service dog, graduated from the program seven years ago. She is trained to pick up items dropped by her hearing-impaired handler, Maureen Luikart, and to alert her to ringing phones, smoke alarms, doorbells and other signals by jumping on her back legs and guiding her handler to the sound.

Rain sticks close by, Luikart said.

On a trip to a craft store, "I looked down and didn't have her leash in my hand. And there she was behind me walking herself!" Luikart said.

Service dogs can also help those who don't face physical challenges.

Thomas Young suffers from bi-polar disorder and antisocial tendencies. He owns D.O.G., a three-year-old mental health service dog. Young had other dogs in the past but has noticed something different with D.O.G.

"He's getting me back to my life," Young said.

D.O.G. was first going to be a simple pet until Young's mother saw how much he was helping Young. That's when they decided to take him to Handi-Dogs for training. Young said that D.O.G. has helped him socialize with people and even gets him to visit places other than his house.

"He's the only one who's changed my life," said Young

Service dog training

Service dog training sessions run for 10 weeks, with the dogs broken up into classes of 3-6 dogs each.

To be certified as service animals, Handi-Dogs trainees must take five courses, including a temperament assessment, field work and class training. Sessions range in price from $200-$250 for each 10-week session.

Fall training sessions will run Sept. 12-Nov. 18. The enrollment deadline is Aug. 19.

Handi-Dogs says it runs "one of the oldest assistance dog training programs in the country." It was founded in 1973 and incorporated in 1977.

Besides service dog training, the organization also offers puppy training, basic obedience classes and therapy dog training.

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