a Vizsla, waits for instructions from instructor
Maureen Bennett during a hands-on training class
for IDEA Service Dogs at her home in Keller,
Texas, on Sept. 6, 2015.
WORTH, Tex. — It’s the first day of classes, and
Pippa can barely contain her excitement. She knows she’s
supposed to sit still and listen to instructions, and
for one so young and full of energy, she does an
the promise of a treat makes it easier to pay attention.
is a 4-month-old Vizsla puppy with a smooth caramel
coat, big droopy ears and the kind of soft, sweet eyes
that make humans melt. She’s intently engaged with her
surroundings and with what she’s being taught in her
first class with IDEA Service Dogs of Keller, Tex.
owners, 16-year-old Lina Perez and her mom, Katie, live
in far north Fort Worth, and have come to IDEA’s
founder, Maureen Bennett, to learn how to train Pippa to
be a seizure response dog.
an atypical situation. Usually, service dogs are
selected and trained and fostered during a lengthy and
expensive process, then, finally, assigned to the people
they’re meant to serve. But Bennett handles things
differently, keeping the future service dogs and their
people together from the get-go, so that the
relationship starts off strong and the dogs aren’t
transferred through a variety of caregivers while they’re
growing and working on their skills.
who has periodic seizures, has a lot riding on Pippa’s
success. The plan is to teach Pippa to go get help if
Lina has a seizure and to be able to retrieve a packet
with medicine and instructions.
the future, I’d love to move out of the house and go
to college, so having a service dog will be added
security and companionship," she says.
a private session before the first group class, Pippa
only wriggles a little while getting buckled into her
service dog in training vest. The new royal blue apparel
bears that telltale patch with the slogan, "Please
don’t pet me I’m working."
has a bag of small treats and a clicker to reward good
behavior, and when Pippa lies on a small rug at Lina’s
feet, it earns her a click and a treat.
now, Bennett has eight canine "students"
divided into two IDEA training classes, plus another dog
taking a private class. The classroom for the IDEA dogs
— the name stands for Independence Dogs for Everyone
With Differing Abilities — is in the garage of Bennett’s
home, a remodeled, air-conditioned space where classes
take place on Sunday afternoons, September through June.
keeps her groups small because it gets crowded: Besides
four trainers in attendance, each dog is accompanied by
its disabled person and another family member who also
treat service dog training as a family affair,"
most traditional programs insist on one person giving
the orders, IDEA’s practice is to educate the family
on commands and methods. A list of 60 different commands
that dogs are expected to learn during a two-year period
range from the usual "sit" and
"down" to higher-level tasks like turning off
lights or finding a misplaced item — an inhaler, for
focuses on the use of treats and praise — reinforcing
good behavior and ignoring bad behavior. In addition,
the program’s mission is to provide service dogs at an
affordable cost, thus the novel concept of equipping
families with the training knowledge and allowing a
disabled pet owner to use a dog he already has, provided
the animal has a good temperament for service.
goal is for the dog to be ‘bullet-proof’ in public,
first, and then to learn special skills to help the
disabled person," Bennett says.
the Perezes, Shari Hanna was intrigued by Bennett’s
program and the possibility of training her own service
dog. Because of a degenerative disease she developed at
age 12, she has had more than 20 surgeries on her hip
and retains a pronounced limp. Hanna has had two service
dogs in the past and is in the process of training
Crockett, an 11-month-old golden retriever, as her
third. A special handle on Crockett’s harness provides
his owner with some relief and support, and he
accompanies her to work in software support at American
Airlines every day.
the pair is part of IDEA’s more advanced class.
Although he just started in February, Crockett is a
quick study, Hanna says. Even at his young age, he’s
learned to not get overly excited by the attention of
others and has been exposed to as many different animals
as Hanna can find. He also goes to a variety of stores
and events with her, and recently accompanied her to a
work with him most every day. We do some sort of little
practice," she says.
Wilson relies on IDEA for lessons with his Australian
Shepherd, Flint, a former show dog. At 26, Wilson has
had Type 1 diabetes since he was 9, and he and Bennett
are taking private lessons with the goal of making Flint
a diabetic alert dog.
the sweet-tempered pup didn’t work out in the ring,
Bennett says his intelligence and sunny personality make
him a good candidate for service. This is Bennett’s
first time to train a diabetic alert dog, and she says
Wilson must intentionally make his blood sugar get a
little out of balance and swab his saliva with a cotton
ball. He freezes the sample, and samples of normal
readings, in marked vials. The vials are thawed out for
training and hidden around Wilson’s apartment.
earns a treat when he alerts them to an out-of-balance
sample. Eventually, they’ll train him to associate the
scent with Wilson and be able to help.
I start to go low, he should determine it almost
immediately," Wilson says. "Once he’s got
that figured out, we’ll teach him to open the fridge
and get something for it."
did not start her career working with dogs, but her own
health issues led her toward the new path.
20 years ago, while living in California, the sudden —
and painful — onset of rheumatoid arthritis was
followed by a diagnosis of ankylosing spondylitis, an
inflammatory disease that can cause some of the
vertebrae in the spine to fuse together. In less than
four months, she went from running three or four miles
several days a week to not being able to do anything.
She had to quit her job and says she spent most of a
year stuck in bed.
her pursuit of various treatments allowed her to get up
and around, and while using her corporate experience to
help administer grants to local nonprofits, she came in
contact with a traditional service dog organization.
Soon, she was raising puppies for the group, serving on
the board and learning how to train service dogs.
traditional model in service dog training is that
puppies spend the first 18 months being raised in a
foster home, learning basic obedience and socialization.
Next, dogs go into kennels to work with trainers who
teach them to perform the tasks a disabled person might
need. Dogs that learn the skills and are calm and
confident graduate to service.
of Bennett’s foster pups, a golden retriever named
Mercy, flunked out of traditional training and became
the inspiration behind IDEA Service Dogs.
was smart and eager to learn when the pair met in 2002,
and Bennett had no problem teaching her basic obedience.
Soon, Mercy had been sent off for service training, but
after a number of months, Bennett learned that the young
dog had failed the program. As the story goes, Mercy was
afraid of balloons and waving flags and was deemed
unsuitable. With puppy raisers getting first dibs on
animal adoptions for "failures" they’ve
housed, she jumped at the chance to bring Mercy back
learned of another approach to training service dogs
with Leashes for Living, a group that focused on
assisting those with disabilities and their families in
training their own service dogs at a fraction of the
cost of traditional programs. The duo enrolled in the
two-year program. They passed with flying colors.
got involved with teaching Leashes For Living classes
and kept busy there until her marriage to Jerry Bennett
— and a move to Texas in 2006. The two had known each
other 30 years earlier when they worked together and
reconnected over the phone.
years later, she started IDEA Service Dogs in Keller.
Jerry has the official title of director of the
nonprofit, although he jokes that his unofficial title
is "vice president of poop" because he picks
up after the dogs following their end-of-class play
session in the back yard.
so supportive," Bennett says. "I couldn’t do
this without him."
2011, Mercy died, and Bennett still talks often of how
special her first service dog was. Now, she has a new
canine partner, 4-year-old Sophie, another golden
retriever who is well-on her way to becoming
"bullet-proof" in public and is eager to learn
a recent Friday afternoon, Bennett was teaching her to
pick up a dropped credit card, a tricky task on hard
floors. Retrieving dropped items is Sophie’s primary
task, but she also helps provide stability and mobility
assistance to Bennett. The command "brace"
means Sophie will be ready for Bennett to lean against
her for support.
she is already an IDEA graduate, Sophie is a perpetual
student. Bennett says she continues attending training
classes because her calm, contented demeanor rubs off on
the other dogs and she can demonstrate skills.
the age of 63, Bennett doesn’t allow her mobility
challenges to stop her; she is tireless — and
passionate — when it comes to IDEA Service Dogs.
hope to do it until I can’t," she says. "It’s
what makes life worthwhile."