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Selfless service with paws

Mr. Brian Landis trains Syracuse, female black Labrador Retriever, in Air
Force Space Command's Headquarters building on Peterson Air Force Base,
Colo., by giving her commands for actions she may later perform as a service
dog for the disabled

Mr. Brian Landis trains Syracuse, female black Labrador Retriever, in Air Force Space Command's Headquarters building on Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., by giving her commands for actions she may later perform as a service dog for the disabled

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- "These are not pets, these are assistance animals," said Brian Landis, program analyst in Air Force Space Command's Defensive Counterspace Branch, as Syracuse lay calmly under his work desk.

Service dogs are becoming an increasingly common sight in the AFSPC headquarters building here. Landis has been bringing assistance dogs into Building 1 since February 2011. So far eight different service dogs have been exposed to the daily life of HQ AFSPC. Lt. Col. Christopher Chew has been bringing puppies to work since April 2011. Both volunteer as assistance dog sitters for Canine Companions for Independence.

CCI is a non-profit organization that enhances the lives of people with disabilities by providing highly trained assistance dogs and ongoing support to ensure quality partnerships between people and their assistance dog.

"The people love it," said Landis. "I get smiles when I go through the hallways; and to be honest, the dog mostly sleeps under my desk. People have come up to see me and they'll be standing three inches from the dog's nose and have no idea that the dog is there."

"The primary thing we're doing is socialization," said Landis. "The dog needs to be socialized and they need to learn basic commands so that when they go to advanced training, they already know a lot."

Chew compares raising the puppies to being a strong leader. Both require giving confident commands, quickly correcting improper skills, slowly increasing the complexity of skills and environments, plus being positive in all interactions.

Landis said the dogs must learn to stay calm in public situations before they go on to become one of four types of assistance dogs: service dog, skilled companion, hearing dog or facility dog.

A service dog performs actions for a disabled person. "It may be as simple as picking up the keys you dropped, or it could be opening or closing a refrigerator, turning on or off lights...anything that you don't have to get up and do yourself," said Landis.

"A disabled person spends a lot of time and energy on tasks you and I take for granted. Having that companion allows the client to preserve some energy and time for higher level achievements," said Chew.

Skilled companion dogs enhance independence for children and adults with physical, cognitive and developmental disabilities. Hearing dogs alert the deaf and hard of hearing to important sounds in their environment that they need to react to. And facility dogs work with a professional in a visitation, education or healthcare setting.

Volunteers like Landis and Chew take the puppies to obedience classes and through several levels of training that include house manners and public etiquette. "For the first two months they're with their mother, then they go to someone like me for 18 months and we give them the 30 basic commands. Then we turn them back in for advanced training, which takes anywhere from six to nine additional months," said Landis.

A puppy must be proficient on commands and execution, ignoring distractions in the environment like people, toys, or food before they can move up to the next level. "So, the dogs are about two to two-and-a-half years old before they get placed with an individual," said Landis.

"Tory knew most of the commands when she arrived and she was disciplined not to take food from the floor," said Chew. "Something on the floor could be rotten or even a pill that could make the dog sick."

Along with the intensive training, CCI requires that the dog still must be a dog and not work all the time. "It is amazing, when you take the working dog cape off of them, the transformation that occurs. They turn back into puppies," said Landis. "But once you put that cape on, they know they have to calm down. It's hard to describe, but they know it's business."

People naturally want to pet the dog. Landis says, "Once they see their capes, they know the dog is working. But then again we're still socializing the dogs, so we want them to interact with people. As long as the dog is calm or lying down there is no problem with petting them".

"We encourage interaction with new people but we ask every person to pet them on the top of the head. While they are in the vest and on leash, horse play and rough-housing is not appropriate because it doesn't reinforce the discipline they need to become service dogs," said Chew.

HQ AFSPC and NORAD/U.S. Northern Command both support puppy raising. AFSPC recently issued a policy allowing puppies in raising programs inside the Hartinger Building (Building 1). The policy memo states that, as a strong community partner, HQ AFSPC supports employees volunteering efforts to raise puppies and allows up to three simultaneous puppies-in-raising in the building at one time.