Man's best friend: training the next generation of service dogs
Life-saving service dogs are learning their skills right here in Alaska, like Thorr, the mobility service dog who went to get help when his owner, Eric Skousen, suffered a massive seizure. Now Thorr's trainer is working with the next generation.
Yellow Labrador puppy Lakota is just 14 weeks old. He's still all bounce, floppy ears and big feet. Young as he is, Lakota is already in school.
"It's really puppy kindergarten for him right now,” said trainer Michele Forto with Alaska Dog Works.
Lakota has a very important job ahead of him. His future owner struggles with a degenerative disease, her symptoms similar to extreme vertigo.
“He will learn stand and then it'll be changed to brace as he gets older so he can brace the person that's receiving him,” said Forto.
She’s sure Lakota will do well. After all, being a service dog runs in his bloodline.
“Lakota has some big shoes to fill with Thorr being his cousin,” she said.
Lakota looks just like his older cousin. Thorr and Skousen are in Sitka Community Hospital where Thorr made headlines after getting help from the nurses when Skousen had a seizure. He went to the nurse’s station and alerted them to the problem, which is not something he's trained to do.
'It's been a fun journey with Eric and Thorr,” said Forto. “They've gone above and beyond what I ever expected of either of them."
Forto trained Thorr for one year before giving him to Skousen. Lakota is the student now. He’s just a couple months into the course.
He's not always the most focused pupil, sometimes biting the leash, sometimes missing commands. Because he's so young, Forto makes sure lessons include plenty of play time.
"We want to teach them how to follow us, to stay close to us and how to do things with us because it's fun for them, not because we're restricting them all the way when they're that young,” she said.
There's another reason ensuring Lakota's life is fun is so important to her.
"Being a mobility service dog shortens their life span by four years so we want to make sure that every opportunity they have to just be dogs is encouraged,” said Forto.
Being a constant source of support, mentally and physically, is a tough job. Lakota will be on the clock from the moment he meets his future owner. That's why Forto doesn't mind taking a moment to just let him be a puppy.
Soon it's back to class, mastering those skills he'll need for the day he leaves the schoolyard and goes to work.
Forto said it frustrates her when people pretend their dogs are service dogs. She thinks they should be licensed and regulated and be able to show certain skills in order to qualify.
Service dogs aren't just companions. They are tools to help their human have a better quality of life.