MCTC professor volunteers time to train service dog

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Sydney Foster

Copper is able to perform a number of actions such as opening a bathroom door using the handicap button. (Photos: Sydney Foster/City College News)

By Gabe Hewitt/[email protected]
Features Editor

Service dogs are more than loyal. They’re trained to go above and beyond for their owners. Those who train them go above and beyond to make sure someone who needs the dog receives that service. Just ask Kirk Boraas and the service dog he’s training, Copper.

Boraas, a Chemistry professor, and Copper, a golden retriever, have been together for a year and a half. Boraas is volunteering his time for Helping Paws, a nonprofit that trains dogs to perform actions that their future owners may not be able to. The dogs are trained to be used by people with a disability including paraplegics, quadriplegics and veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“I feel like in the end I’m doing something good for someone else,” Boraas said.

They’re trained to perform numerous tasks like opening a door, opening the fridge, retrieving an item like a blanket and turning on a light switch. Training can be very extensive. Boraas and Copper started with the basics: sitting and laying down. Then they built upon those skills into more complex ones like jumping to hit a handicap door button when commanded to. When teaching him how to turn on a light switch, Boraas had to take small steps. It started with practicing with a handheld switch, then having Copper jump up to a real switch, turning it on and off, then associating a verbal command with the entire string of actions. To reinforce these behaviors, Boraas treats Copper with dog food.

Boraas takes Copper everywhere he goes.
Boraas takes Copper everywhere he goes.

“Some things come easily and some things don’t,” he said. “I sometimes have to remember as much you like the dog being successful, you’ve got to take it at their speed.”

In order to polish these skills, Boraas is engaging with Copper constantly. In the morning, he may ask Copper to fetch his shoes to practice retrieval. He accompanies Boraas everyday to work and sits in on his classes. This exposes the canine to the many types of people, sounds and sights he may see on a daily basis with its future owner.

The two are together from sunup till sundown.

“When you’re a part of this program, you’re also signing up to be a dog sitter,” he said.

Boraas recently borrowed a wheelchair from the nursing department to simulate a future owner who’s walking may be limited. By doing this, Copper learns how to be by his owner’s side in a different capacity. Seeing him in a wheelchair has confused both Copper and Boraas’ students but all seem to be making the adjustment.

Copper isn’t any ordinary golden retriever. Helping Paws makes sure all of their dogs come from a lineage of well established and documented dogs. Any litter pups who don’t have the skills to become a service dog may instead become a nursing home or reading dog.

The process of dogs like Copper being given to their actual owners is carefully conducted. All service dogs must meet requirements at the end of their training set by Helping Paws. Then the dog meets potential owners who are either looking for a new or replacement canine.

“I’ve heard it said that there’s a connection made and the dog picks the person,” Boraas said.

After acceptance, the dog goes to live with its new owner temporarily. During this time, it is determined which skills learned during training will be more needed and which skills won’t be. Trainers like Boraas may then receive their dog back to brush up on the skills that will be asked upon more by that owner.

From time to time at their weekly trainings, Helping Paws invites service dog owners to come in and tell their stories. Over time, Boraas has found out that service dogs make their owners feel happy.

“If you have a disability, humans are are told to not be rude to you, not to look at you and maybe not even talk to you. This makes them feel isolated,” he said. “When you add a dog, people are smiling and talking with you about it. They break down barriers.”

Boraas calls himself a “foster parent” to Copper as he only trains him for two and a half years. He admits that letting him go in six months when the training has finished will be tough. But he knows he’s going to be doing great things for an individual who needs it.

“I like having him here,” he said. “He adds something to my day and I’ll miss him when he’s gone.”

Copper comes from a long line of specially bred and established golden retrievers.
Copper comes from a long line of specially bred and established golden retrievers.