Who let the dogs in?

By on July 22, 2015
Workers and volunteers with Phoenix Assistance Dogs of Central PA (bottom, left to right) Tanya Ruhl-Tuy, her son Dominick with Haru; Linzey’s mother Gail Dim and Nantuckey; Linzey Zoccola; Lisa Mansperger and Athena; and Kathy Vosburg with Titus. (Top row) Christine Spain Siko and Davy; and Jane Schappell with Marcus.

If you’ve recently visited Frizz and Freeze you may wonder “who let the dogs in?”

The restaurant in downtown Lititz is a focal point for Phoenix Assistance Dogs of Central PA, a local organization that breeds and trains dogs to aid humans with physical and emotional needs.

Phoenix Assistance Dogs since late June has used Frizz and Freeze for social training, said Linzey Zoccola PAD’s director. She is leader of the pack who brought the dogs and their volunteer trainers to Lititz Springs Park and the restaurant for training.

The outing is a small part of a long process to prepare the dogs for a service life.

“This is a very hard outing because the distractions are really high,” noted Zoccola. “The smells, the soils, the grass and the ducks are really olfactory and there are a lot of scent-oriented thoughts. They get really distracted.”

“Frizz and Freeze is a big supporter,” said Zoccola. “They’ve let us do (the social) for years.

The candidate dogs must be able to behave around other dogs and handle all the distractions of the daily life of dogs and people. That is why Zoccola brought the dogs to the park and restaurant.

“We do not teach any task until the dog can pass 100 percent of their public access test before I’ll teach them service dog stuff.”

Zoccola has Spinal Muscular Atrophy and uses a wheelchair and assistance dog. Her fascination with the animals began with her first one.

“I got my first service dog when I was sixteen. His name was Winston. He went to high school with me at Warwick and it was a great experience,” she said.

She was completely mesmerized within days “by the joy the dogs had working for people.”

“They loved doing it and waited for the opportunity to do it,” she said. “I could not believe that, with my disability, that I could still train him to do more things than originally taught to do. I started volunteering within weeks.”

Linzey  Zoccola  gives instructions to a volunteer.

gives instructions to a volunteer.

She began her volunteer work with Susquehanna Service Dogs, then in Harrisburg and eventually became a paid staff member. Starting as a volunteer in 2000, she was hired as a paid intern in 2005.

“I worked for four years there; the last three of them I was the program coordinator,” Zoccola said. “I ran their puppy program of thirty puppies from eight weeks old until they went through advanced training at the kennel. I did all the medical appointment scheduling, I did all the classes.”

Phoenix Assistance Dogs was started partially because Zoccola in 2009 was tired of traveling from Lititz to Harrisburg.

“It was sixty miles one way – I worked forty hours a week plus overtime,” she said. “I spent a lot of time on the go. It got to be exhausting for me.”

One day after leaving SSD, a friend requested help with training a new assistance dog. That request became the other spur to creating the program.

“I had a good friend whose service dog passed away very suddenly,” recalled Zoccola. “She said ‘Please train my next dog.’ I had always said I could never run another program. The responsibility was too much. The emotional toll was too much.

“I decided I would do it and started researching. I took it one step at a time from incorporating, (and) filing the fictitious name.”

“I knew that my core beliefs were a little different from what I was doing at Susquehanna. I didn’t want to lose the intimacy of one-on-one training. I really love to be able to work with the volunteers and get to know them. I wasn’t able to do that in a program with thirty puppies.”

Her new philosophy was to remain loyal to her Warwick roots, stay ‘small town,’ and to provide training to no more than ten dogs at a time.

“I could get to know each and every family that’s helping to raise that dog and really to be able to find the perfect job for that dog,” she said.

Finding the perfect job for that dog begins with finding a dog with the perfect temperament. Assistance dogs go through scary startling situations where they have to get food and have (it) taken away from them – something that requires zero aggression.

“They have to meet other dogs, be social with them and they have to show us they have willingness and an ability to be trained,” said Zoccola.

The trainees must have a willingness to go where others dare not and are tested in an “under-footing,” she said.

“We have them walk on scary things and we need the dog to make sure that, even if they are not comfortable, they are willing to follow us. We’re not gauging that they’ll do it, we’re gauging that they are willing to participate when we ask them.”

Well-screened volunteers help train the dogs from puppyhood until being placed in service.

Similar to Zoccola, Kathy Vosburg of York volunteered with Susquehanna Service Dogs. She moved to Phoenix when the commute had gotten too long

Currently, she is helping 19-month-old Titus learn specific service tasks and therapy work-stress release for children with disabilities in the Lincoln Intermediate Unit classroom.

“They help him work on things like, if they drop something, he can pick it up for them,” Vosburg said. “They take him out to recess and there are some kids who have physical disabilities and they’ll practice throwing the ball to him. He’ll bring it back.”

In future training, Vosburg will work with dogs for children with vocal issues or very limited speech.

“We’ll work on some very small words like ‘ball’ and they will hand him the ball and throw it for him,” she said. “They’ll work on giving him short commands and he’ll respond.

Phoenix also helps people with service needs to train their dog if the animal and owner are capable. Tanya Ruhl-Tuy is training a Newfoundland named Haru to be her service dog.

“I was the victim of an armed robbery,” explained Ruhl-Tuy. “I have bipolar disorder. I have PTSD and panic disorder. I have panic attacks whenever I go anywhere new. (Haru) is being trained to find exits and then once he finds the exit, to lead me out to the car. Those are his two main ones.”

While Zoccola did not match Haru with his owner, his breed is much attuned to their owner’s moods and demonstrates why each dog is slated for different duties.

“This breed (Newfoundland) was recommended specifically by my doctor due to their gentle nature,” said Ruhl-Tuy. “He already has trained himself that he alerts me when my anxiety is starting to get too high. He wakes me out of nightmares so I don’t have to go through them. The nightmares and alerting me to anxiety, he’s done before we started training with Linzey.

“I was told to take (a Canine Good Citizenship course) if Linzey was the trainer due to the fact that she helps train service dogs also. I was looking specifically for a group that would do owner-training, not just give me some dog that I didn’t know.”

According to Zoccola, the owner/trainer process presents different risks and has a higher failure rate.

“It’s a really hard thing to raise your own service dog,” she said. “Fifty percent (of the teams) won’t make it anyway and that has nothing to do with who you are or what you did. It’s just that many dogs don’t make it.

“Then you add in (the owner’s needs) and the stress for that puppy has skyrocketed. The puppy has expectations to behave really quickly.”

For Ruhl-Tuy, the difficulties are present but training Haru rather than having a dog assigned to her has eased other issues.

“Due to my anxiety, it was more important to me to have that bond then saying ‘we’re going to work with you for two or three weeks and you’re on your own,’” she explained.

“There are days when he’d rather not do anything but it is very uplifting too. (Haru) helps me to feel more safe when I go out in public and know I have the support I need when I have my husband is away.”

One Comment

  1. Deb

    July 24, 2015 at 9:58 am

    We have one of PAD’s dogs currently doing owner training with professional trainer assistance. Our 5 year old has benefitted even though the service dog tasks haven’t begun. Can’t give enough praise for this unique program. We never could have afforded the $15-30,000 most programs seek. If you are looking for a worthy charity that really uses your money to help others, look no further!

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