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AUBURN, Ala. (AP) — Velcro - an 18-month-old German shepherd - focuses hard on her trainer, Ashton Jakcsy, in a conference room in the Auburn Research Park. Velcro ignores the two other canines, McCrae and Gunner, and the flurry of people in the room, eyeing Jakcsy instead in the hopes of getting a treat.
"She is still very much in training, but she's doing very well so far," Jakcsy said. "We're getting them ready to head out and change somebody's life."
After months of training by Auburn-based iK9, Velcro will join Gunner as a certified service dog. She will be paired with a military veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder somewhere in the United States. McCrae, a trained emotional support dog, will meet his veteran in a few months.
"All the dogs have to be well-behaved, good citizens. Be able to be out in public and not jump up on people and not eat food off the floor and just be a well-mannered, well-behaved dog. So they go through a battery of tests that they have to pass in order to be certified," said Lizzie Benecke, contracts and program manager for iK9 LLC. "Our service dogs, on top of that - because they have full access to restaurants, movie theaters, bowling allies, et cetera - they have to pass a little higher standard of test."
Started in the Auburn Research and Technology Foundation's business incubator, iK9 is training PTSD service and emotional support dogs through a subcontract with the foundation and the Department of Veterans Affairs. The contract stipulates two task orders, the first for six dogs and the second for 18.
"The first task order is complete except delivering the dogs, and so we're waiting now for the VA to come up with the veterans to match them up with. We've done one of those successfully, and we've got the second one in about three months in July," explained Dr. John Weete, foundation executive director. "So, there are six of those dogs, and there will be 18 coming along in the next task order. So it's really going exceedingly well, and the VA is happy with what we are doing here. And we're happy to be able to do it because it's a great service to these veterans to be able to have these dogs."
Benecke added the majority of iK9's staff are military veterans themselves.
"About 80 percent of us are veterans. We actually have a few of our folks that struggle with PTSD, as well. This is something that is just an honor to be a part of," she said.
Service dogs, like Velcro and Gunner, learn five tasks aimed at facilitating veterans with PTSD. Once Velcro has completed her training, she'll be able to flip on a light switch, sweep a room, retrieve an item, and block the veteran in front and behind, in addition to standard behaviors like sit and stay. iK9 trains the dogs both in training facilities and in public.
"(Velcro) is learning the tasks - she's learning how to turn on lights, which starts very slowly. We shape the behavior, so first we teach them to touch their nose, and then build that up to where they're actually able to flip the light switch. We teach all of the basic behaviors that would be expected of your average pet," Jakcsy said, adding Velcro learned basic behaviors first. "All of this is done with the expectation of being able to do these things in public, which is why we're all over Auburn, all over Opelika. . Because when they do get paired with their veteran, they will be with them all day, every day. They will be expected to go into Kroger and sit in front of the butcher shop. They will be expected to do things that your average pet wouldn't."
Two-year-old McCrae lies comfortably in his blue "Service Dog" vest, dozing at the feet of trainer Melanie Friedman. An emotional support dog, McCrae has already been paired with his veteran.
"McCrae is just waiting for his future home. We're all going to miss him because he's just been so wonderful. He's just a love," Friedman said. "Everywhere we go - out into the towns and to Opelika and Auburn - everybody wants to snuggle on him. The veteran that he's going to really just wants to snuggle on a dog, so that's what McCrae's going to be doing."
iK9 trainers use clicker training to work with the dogs several hours each day. When the dogs respond to a command correctly, they are rewarded with a treat.
"(McCrae) knows that every time he hears a click he's going to get a treat," Friedman said. "It's just a little quick short noise that makes him say, 'Oh, here comes the treat.'"
While trainers work with the service and emotional support dogs up to seven days a week, iK9 also relies on area families to foster the dogs before they are matched with their veterans. The dogs stay with the families, called the Puppy Raisers Club, from six to 14 months as the dogs are trained. Right now, iK9 boasts seven foster families but needs more than double that.
"Raising dogs in a home environment is key to the success of these dogs," Benecke said. "They need to be comfortable around the sound of the dishwasher and the vacuum cleaner and kids running around. Just being a good family member and being exposed to a lot of different sounds, noises, environmental situations."
She added fostering a dog, and the attachment that goes along with it, can be difficult for families. But foster families understand the dogs have a higher calling, to positively impact the life of a veteran with PTSD.
"As we pair the veteran and their dog, and that bond grows stronger, it's amazing just to watch it day to day how it grows," Benecke said. "It's a great thing for the dogs, and it's great for the veteran."
Information from: Opelika-Auburn News, http://www.oanow.com/