YORK COUNTY, Pa. — Several programs in south central Pennsylvania help train service dogs for veterans and first responders. Trainers often heard from others with disabilities who could benefit from having a service dog, but had to tell them they were ineligible for those programs.
Last summer, four service dog trainers formed 4 Paws 4 a Cause, dedicated to helping people help themselves by training their own service dog.
“It’s amazing what you can teach a dog to do,” said 4 Paws 4 a Cause president John. L. Schroll, III. “We can train the dog to let you know when your sugar’s high. We can have the dogs pick up things for them, open doors.”
The group offers classes three days a week. Participants bring their own dogs at least once a week to take classes in obedience, public access and any other skills needed to help their handler.
All training is free.
Karen Pastorelli is one of the program’s first participants. For about 20 years she suffered from debilitating anxiety, which could keep her from getting out of bed for days or even weeks.
She now leaves the house most days and can go to stores, doctor appointments and more. She even volunteered for a TV interview, accompanied by her golden retriever, Stevie.
“When I have a lot of anxiety she will lay across me and I pet her and it calms me down,” she said.
Handlers say any breed of dog can be trained to become a service dog, though some take a little longer than others.
Cheyenne, a sandy yellow mastiff Labrador mix, was aggressive toward humans and other dogs when she began her training.
“She used to pull me off chairs and go after other dogs,” said her handler, Selina Ortlieb. “And here I am today and not only is she certified but I’m a certified trainer, too.”
Ortlieb has a condition that causes her blood pressure to suddenly drop, causing her to faint. Cheyenne can alert her when her blood pressure is dropping.
“She would get in front of me and catch me when I fall so I wouldn’t hit the floor,” Ortlieb said.
Trainers volunteer their time and expertise, a boon for those who can’t afford to pay up to $50,000 for a pre-trained service dog.
“To be able to train an animal that will help you, that you can bond with and that’s always there for you, and to know that there’s no fee involved, to do this is mind-blowing,” said Joline Thiele, who has certified her pitbull labrador mix Freyja.
Even after they’re certified, most dogs—and their handlers—continue to come to the 4 Paws 4 a Cause trainings. It’s a way to check in on both dog and human.
“When you see the difference it makes in people, it’s amazing,” Schroll said.