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Students visited by Big Paws, service dogs for veterans

Service dogs make life less rough. That's the basic message a service dog trainer gave to Mitchell Christian School students on Wednesday. Gail Dickerson, director of operations for Big Paws Canine's Midwest region, and four others brought five s...

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Veterans Kevin Stoterau, left, and Mike Maske, right, sit with their service dogs, Rudy, left, and Sierra, right, during the Big Paws Canine presentation on Wednesday at Mitchell Christian School in Mitchell. Big Paws Canine was there to teach students about service dogs, and how to act around them in public. (Sarah Barclay/Republic)

Service dogs make life less rough.

That’s the basic message a service dog trainer gave to Mitchell Christian School students on Wednesday.

Gail Dickerson, director of operations for Big Paws Canine’s Midwest region, and four others brought five service dogs to the MCS gymnasium to show students what the dogs can do and how people should act around them.

“For the longest time, seeing eye dogs were the status quo, but as more investigation and research is going on, we’re realizing that dogs can help with everything from seizure alert to diabetic alert to mobility as far as brace and balance,” Dickerson said.

According to Kevin Stoterau, one of the presenters from Big Paws Canine, service dogs can smell subtle changes in a person’s body chemistry that can be caused by fluctuation in blood sugar or the onset of a seizure, so a service dog can detect a problem before the individual can.

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Big Paws Canine trains service dogs specifically to pair with veterans. The organization has offices in Sioux Falls, California and South Carolina. Since its Sioux Falls branch opened 18 months ago, 60 South Dakota veterans have been matched with a service dog, Dickerson said, and they are currently seeking to pair a dog with one veteran in Mitchell.

Dog trainers at Big Paws Canine seek to find a perfect match between dog and veteran, partially by allowing dogs to select their new owner. The veteran is then asked to participate in training sessions to learn the dog’s commands.

“We involve the veterans through the entire process of the training, otherwise it would be like giving someone a brand new car and not giving them a set of keys,” Dickerson said.

Inviting the veteran also combats isolation, a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder and other problems, and builds a sense of pride in seeing a well-trained dog.

Wednesday’s informational session was the first given by Big Paws Canine’s Midwest branch to school children.

“I think the dogs are kind of the stars of the show today,” Dickerson said.

Dickerson, Stoterau and Tonya Jeeninga, from Big Paws, and Steven Oliva and Mike Maske, with the Davison County Veteran’s Service Office, shared facts about dogs - like a dog’s sense of smell is up to 100,000 times more acute than a human’s - and instructed their canine companions to complete tasks like opening a drawer, picking up keys or turning on a light.

The animal panel was made up of Casper, a German shepherd; Whiskey, a boxer; Sierra, a labradoodle; Master Chief, a goldendoodle; and Rudy, who is part boxer and part pitbull, among other breeds. The dogs struggled to perform at times -- the crowd and myriad echoing sounds in the gym were distracting and made them nervous, Dickerson said.

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Still, the elementary students enthusiastically promised Dickerson two things: they would never run up to a strange dog, which could scare it, and they would tell one adult that he or she is not allowed to touch a service dog when it is working.

They were even able to pet one of the hairy presenters following the presentation - after he took off his service vest.


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