Rossi the yellow lab is far from your typical pet. She can turn lights on and off; help her owner get dressed and undressed; and even handle cash, coins, or credit cards with ease. Rossi is what’s known as a demo dog: she teaches people all about life with a service dog.
Rossi and her owner, Betsy Smith of Susquehanna Service Dogs, visited DeSales University as part of National Disability Awareness Month. “A service dog has to go out in public and be able to function,” Smith told the crowd of faculty, staff, and students.
Smith has been volunteering with the organization for 11 years, and Rossi was the first dog she and her husband trained. The training program is rigorous and only 60 percent of dogs actually make it through. Rossi was too timid to make the final cut and be placed, so she became a demonstration dog instead.
“Our demonstration dogs are unique in that they learn all the different behaviors that a service dog might need to do,” Smith said. Rossi showed off some of those different behaviors – everything from alerting Smith to a particular sound or alarm to helping to pull her from a seated to a standing position.
Those trained behaviors are something that Shelby Schinstine ’16 knows well. Now a DeSales graduate student, Schinstine spearheaded the event to raise awareness about service dogs — and the proper etiquette for the public to use when meeting these hard working canine companions. It’s a struggle she’s experienced with her service dog, Laura.
“People don’t realize that [service dogs] do a real job,” Schinstine said. “She’s pretty much a person; she is my person.”
Laura can open doors and pick things up. And, she’s trained to alert Schinstine to an oncoming asthma attack and to get help when needed.
“Her favorite thing to do is to go in the refrigerator and get a water bottle,” Schinstine said. “She can open the fridge, jump up, grab a water bottle, deliver it to the table, and then close the door.”
Teaching people proper etiquette with service dogs can be a challenge. While public awareness has drastically improved, Smith said there are still people who treat the animals as pets.
“People really need to leave the dogs alone and let them work. That’s what a service dog is trained to do. It needs to focus on its partner.”
The demonstration is part of a month-long awareness campaign by the University’s Disability Services Office. “It’s important to let people know that people with disabilities can do a lot of things,” says Dr. Kathryn Buschan, director of Disability Services: “They just sometimes need to do it differently.”
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