Cindy Morgan's "hobby" in assistance dog training has now become a profession - and a passion.
The Park Rapids resident who has an assistance dog herself, Jake, headed to college in California last year where she earned an associate degree in assistance dog education. Her alma mater, Bergin University of Canine Studies, is the only school accredited by the federal government for this type of training, she said.
Now, Morgan is looking to begin her profession, training service dogs to assist people with mobility impairments - people in wheelchairs, for example - and to help Type 1 or 2 insulin-dependent diabetics - alerting them when glucose levels drop.
"Service dogs are trained to mitigate a person's disability," she explained, "to complete tasks based on the person's disability."
To accomplish her Triple M - manners, mobility and miracles - Assistance Dogs' mission, she's looking for volunteers in a variety of capacities.
The opportunities range from Type 1 diabetics willing to provide saliva for training purposes (saliva is a dog's scent source for recognizing low blood sugar) - to volunteers willing to be training assistants - "puppy fosters."
Foster puppy parents' chief role is socialization. Puppies are placed in homes at about 16 weeks. The "parents" undergo training prior to the dog's arrival, and work with the dogs until they reach 12 to 16 months of age.
The routine includes meeting twice a month as a group. One session is instructional, covering grooming and training topics. Then it's off to field trips - heading to malls, restaurants and ball games.
Service-in-training dogs in Minnesota have the same legal rights as service dogs, Morgan explained of accessibility to public locations.
Rusty - her 7-month-old golden retriever, yellow Lab and poodle mix - has been to a concert and sports games. "That was challenging," Morgan said of a dog that likes to chase balls. Jake has been a passenger on planes, buses and boats.
"It's a big commitment," she said of the responsibility families assume.
Morgan also hopes to acquire the use of a facility to raise and train dogs. She's currently completing construction of a small, interim building in her yard.
Morgan has several clients hoping to gain an "assistant."
A dog's social style is matched with the person's based on four characteristics - amiable, intellectual, driver or expressive, each designated with two of the adjectives/nouns.
Rusty, for example is amiable-amiable, preferred for service dogs.
"Our job is to make them a team, to form a partnership," she said.
Now she's hoping to find volunteers willing to lend their assistance - in training, as well as web design, marketing and sitting on a board of directors for her nonprofit enterprise.
Morgan has used a service dog the past 14 years, having sustained nerve damage to her legs due to exposure to chemicals.
"Jake serves as my cane," she explained.
She has undergone several types of training and also offers obedience/pet training. She's certified as an AKC Canine Good Citizen trainer for apartment dwellers. She has offered classes through Community Education and now has moved into training service dogs.
"It's totally different," she said.
A service dog is not a companion or therapy dog, she explained.
Assistance dogs fall into three categories - guide dogs to help visually or hearing impaired and service dogs - her area of expertise.
The dogs prove particularly beneficial to parents of children with diabetes. A dog can usually detect an impending drop in blood sugar 20 to 30 minutes ahead of a glucose low and will alert parents or the client.
Dogs trained to assist those with disabilities can open doors, turn on lights and even call 911 (thanks to large phone buttons).
By the end of training - encompassing 18 months to two years - the dogs "graduating" from Triple M know 90 commands. The last six months of training are individualized to the client.
After dog and client partner, Morgan will follow up every 30 days for the first six months, and twice a year for the life of the dog. A service dog retires at 10 to 12 years.
Morgan is available to speak at schools or to civic organizations on the topic.
For more information, call "head trainer" Morgan at 732-4483 or go to www.triplemassistancedogs.com.