Program Offers More than A Dog of Service
March 25, 2020
Not all disabilities are visible. Not all service dogs are about physical help. Sometimes, the best of service dogs match what the handler needs, not what he or she wants.
The Disability Dogs clinic held at the Cheyenne County Fairgrounds Saturday and Sunday focused on matching service veterans and first responders. The clinic brought together veterans with a variety of needs. Disability Dogs founder Ashley Tomberg, of Gainesville, Fla., is a no-nonsense direct speaking veteran who focuses on matching veterans with the type of service dog a veteran needs more than what a veteran wants.
"I'm the most inappropriate person you will ever meet, but I'm real," she says.
She shares her stories of injuries physical and emotional sustained during military and law enforcement service, and how pairing with a service dog saved her life.
"I do what I do because I will never forget where I came from," she said in the clinic.
Her program Disability Dogs recently became a non-profit organization. Sidney was her first clinic.
She explained how behavior can be taught, but relationship and complimentary personalities are
what really defines a handler-service dog experience.
"Most dogs know within minutes if they like you," she said.
She said dogs can be taught tasks, but they can't be taught to love. She said the art of service dog pairing is not a trained dog as much as the right personality matched with the right dog.
The clinic explained the importance of positive reinforcement in training of a service dog, and of consistently reinforcing behavior in a positive manner.
"People have this perception their dog 'didn't get it,'" she said. "How many times did you try it?"
Changing how a handler approaches a service dog can change the relationship and how well the dog learns tasks. In her clinic, she displayed exercising a dog with minimal exertion by the handler.
The Saturday portion of the clinic included a session dedicated to veterans and their specific needs. She said having a service dog allows veterans to network, to talk to each other, without necessarily talking about what haunts them. Tomberg admitted there are "monsters" that haunt her, but she no longer runs from them. She credits the change in her life to her dogs. Likewise, she said the dog-handler relationship can be a basis for conversation with other handlers.
"If I can give you one hour of peace... that's so much," she said. "I do this because it keeps me alive."
She stressed that veterans need to admit they need help, including a service dog.
"Don't ever say someone else deserves it more than I do," she said.
On her website, http://www.disabilitydogs.net, Tomberg said "training a dog to meet the needs of a person with exceptional needs is a personal mission. As an individual that suffers from personal disabilities, I remember the feeling of desperation and need to find a dog that would allow me to regain my independence."
She says on her website that her disabilities ultimately lead her to bridging the gap of locating and training service dogs that are affordable.