Challenges of training service dogs amid a pandemic

FIRST CLASS: Robin Greene picked up Beau the Labrador retriever at a Rutherfordton airstrip earlier this fall. Volunteer pilot Leon Mimms, left, flew the puppy up from Savannah, Ga. Photo by Ed Greene

If you’ve ever raised a puppy, you’re familiar with the daily struggles — they pee everywhere and chew on everything. Now imagine raising a puppy that will go on to be a service dog, responsible for protecting the wellbeing and quality of life for people with disabilities or those coping with trauma. Volunteers take on the task of instilling good house manners and basic obedience skills, while making sure to expose the dogs to a wide variety of people and situations during the first year of life.

For service trainers like Robin Greene, COVID-19 has limited many of the social aspects that go into the work. In normal times, Greene explains, service dogs in training visit fire stations, farms with livestock, nursing homes and parks to experience new sights, smells, sounds and, most importantly, people.

“You can’t do that now,” she says. “So you have to make the best of every opportunity you have.”

For the last seven years, Greene has volunteered with Southeastern Guide Dogs, a Florida-based nonprofit with over 3,200 guide and service teams. Until recently, her work was focused in Houston, where she and her husband previously lived.

But in March, the couple relocated to Asheville, just weeks before Gov. Roy Cooper issued a statewide safer-at-home mandate. Around the same time, Southeastern Guide Dogs temporarily closed operations due to the pandemic. As a result, Greene was without a puppy for over six months.

“The house was way too quiet,” she says.

Finally in October, she welcomed Beau, a 9-week-old Labrador retriever. Meanwhile, she also helped Southeastern Guide Dogs launch its Asheville chapter. Greene serves as the area coordinator and currently works with three regionally based volunteers.

Trips to the post office and grocery store have become standard for Greene and Beau, as have occasional visits to retail shops. In all cases, Greene emphasizes, she wears a mask and keeps a safe social distance from other people.

Like the pooches she trains, Greene predicts she and fellow residents might need time to readjust to everyday life once social restrictions are fully lifted. “I think we’re all going to have to reacclimate to being out in the public again,” she says.

But for now, Beau keeps Greene fairly busy. “Having the puppy gives me a focus,” she says. “Puppy raising has become my way of life.”

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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist.

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