Paw power

By on August 7, 2019

Dog lover Linzey Zoccola used her passion to create a business that trains service and facility dogs

When Linzey Zoccola heard that the Warwick School District was considering having a facility dog program, she wanted to find out more.

For one thing, Zoccola is a 2003 Warwick High School graduate. For another, she is an avid dog-lover. Most of all, Zoccola has her own business, Phoenix Assistance Dogs of Central PA, which trains service dogs and facility dogs.

Zoccola knows a lot about service dogs. She herself has a serious disability and uses a wheelchair. When she was 15, she got her first service dog, Winston, a dark yellow Labrador Retriever, who was trained to assist her with things most of us take for granted.

“He retrieved out-of-reach items, opened doors, took my socks off, turned lights on and off, and found my mom or someone nearby when I needed help,” says Zoccola, now 34. “For the first time in my life I didn’t need another human to help me with a dropped item. For the first time in my life, I could shut the door to my bedroom and know when I wanted to get out, I could get out.”

Zoccola’s experience with Winston eventually led her to start Phoenix Assistance Dogs, better known as PAD. When a friend’s service dog died unexpectedly, she asked Zoccola to help train a new service dog for her. PAD was born.

“I am very grateful that I have found my calling in life,” says Zoccola. “I am able to have a meaningful career and help others. I know better than anyone how much a dog can make a difference in someone’s life — If they like dogs, of course.”

“I am very grateful that I have found my calling in life,” says Linzey Zoccola. “I am able to have a meaningful career and help others. I know better than anyone how much a dog can make a difference in someone’s life — If they like dogs, of course.”

Dogs trained by Phoenix Assistance Dogs of Central PA and Dog Sense go on to work in schools, help with emotional support, or assist people with disabilities.

An emotional support dog is part of a patient’s treatment for PTSD, depression, anxiety, and other issues. They are great listeners, and love hugs.

Linzey Zoccola

Zoccola likes dogs quite a bit. She also likes cats. As a confirmed animal lover, she has heard about studies that show that simply petting a dog or cat can reduce blood pressure and soothe stress.

“They give us unconditional love,” says Zoccola.

She had two service dogs after Winston, including Gretel, a Labrador retriever, and Kingsley, a standard poodle. She is currently training 9-week-old standard poodle Natica to be her own service dog. As she notes, specially trained dogs can also perform valuable services to help people with disabilities or special needs.

Different types of service
At the Warwick School District, the dogs in the PAWS for Warwick program will be facility dogs, which are different than service dogs, therapy dogs, or emotional support dogs.

Putting it simply, service dogs would be trained for the blind, as hearing and alerts for the deaf, seizure-detection and alert dogs, or doing tasks like opening doors and carrying items for those with disabilities. A therapy animal is trained to provide affection and comfort to people in facilities such as schools, hospices, disaster areas, hospitals, and nursing homes. An emotional support animal is part of a patient’s treatment for PTSD, depression, anxiety, and other issues.

Then there are facility dogs, a whole different breed, so to speak. Facility dogs are trained to work with professionals in settings, like schools, nursing homes, hospitals, and mental health facilities.

They can motivate and inspire, improve social behavior, encourage communication, and make people more comfortable and more positive. They usually have more than one trained handler and need to be comfortable working with a large number of people or groups of people.

The Warwick School District hopes to have two to four facility dogs in place at the various schools. Later they will be adding more dogs, with the potential of having between seven and nine dogs.

“We have a number of dogs in training and are looking for the right fit for each building. We have some dogs that we know will be placed once fully trained, but are still in the process of matching them with buildings. We are close to placing some for certain,” says Ryan Axe, director of secondary education for the Warwick School District, adding that their caretakers have applied for dogs and are being vetted and trained through Dog Sense.

As Axe points out, the best dogs for the job have a calm demeanor, are responsive to prompts, drawn to people, and, of course, trainable. He is pleased with how Dog Sense has provided resources and insight as the school district builds its program.

“There are ways to reach students beyond the norm through facility dogs,” says Axe. “They can help increase communication skills, attentiveness and engagement, reduce anxiety, and ease stress, as well as providing joy and affection.”

Dog Sense
Zoccola couldn’t agree more. She is more than pleased that Dog Sense and Phoenix have been able to partner together to provide dogs, train them, and place them at Warwick.

“I am happy that these dogs will be providing wonderful services at my alma mater,” says Zoccola, who has worked as an instructor for Dog Sense.

Dog Sense owner Wendy Jordan is excited about the partnership between the non-profit PAD and her Dog Sense training business, which provides boarding, training, grooming, pet training, competitive training, and special training. They work with selecting dogs that meet the criteria for facility dogs, many of them Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, poodles, and various mixes like Labradoodles, as well as suitable rescue dogs. Zoccola works with owner trainers, including Katie Watterson and Laurin Dickson, in training them, with Dog Sense handling the in-school training.

As Zoccola notes, her physical condition makes it too risky to be exposed to germs in the schools, which could lead to serious and even life-threatening damage to her lungs.

A meaningful life
She explains that she has a genetic neurological disease called spinal muscular atrophy type 2, which is caused by mutations in the SMN1 gene. August is SMA Awareness Month. When Linzey was diagnosed at 18 months old, her family was told that she wouldn’t live to see her second birthday.

Zoccola has defied the odds to live a rich, full life and start her own non-profit business, but it hasn’t been easy.

“I have never stood, walked, dressed myself, or many other basic daily tasks. I received my first power wheelchair when I was 4 years old. At around 10, SMA began affecting my respiratory muscles and I started weakening to the point that breathing was difficult,” she says, adding that bi-pap non-invasive ventilation has enabled her to live a much better life, reducing her hospitalizations for lung infections and pneumonia.

She has had painful hip surgery and battled depression, as she faced a life with a severe disability that required her dependence on family, friends, and nursing care. A friend at MDA Summer

Camp encouraged her to persevere and be a role model to younger children. She realized that she could have a meaningful life, despite her physical limitations.

“The glass will be half empty sometimes, half full at other times. Sometimes it’ll be bone dry, while other times it’ll be overflowing. But what matters is you have a glass. You are alive. Every single day you make choices and they either create or destroy goodness,” says Zoccola.

By following her heart, she has been able to found a business that trains dogs to help other people manage in life. Whenever she questions the meaning of her life, she gives herself a pep talk.

“Am I kind? Am I thinking of others when I speak? Am I helping to make the world a better place than it was when I was born?” she asks.

Everyone who knows her will quickly agree with a resounding “Yes!”

To find out more about the non-profit Phoenix Assistance Dogs of Central Pennsylvania, check the website at padcentral.org, for information on fundraisers and making a contribution toward raising and training assistance dogs.

Laura Knowles is a freelance feature writer and regular contributor to the pages of The Record Express. She welcomes feedback and story tips at lknowles21@gmail.com. 

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