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Unique service dog program celebrates first anniversary

Gunney is the first trained service dog to be given away to a local veteran by LaDonna Harkins’ one-year-old non-profit organization called Military and Canines which aims to provide service dogs at no or a reduced cost to veterans, police and other emergency responders who may be in need. Michael Howell photo.

By Michael Howell

A new local non-profit organization called Military and Canines celebrated its first year anniversary on September 9 by giving away a service dog named Gunney, a blonde Labrador, to a local Veteran. But, says founder and president LaDonna Harkins, despite the name, the service they are providing is definitely not just for veterans.


“It is for law enforcement and emergency response personnel as well,” said Harkins. She said the service is actually open to anyone with a disability who could use the help of a service dog.


“But it is generally veterans who come looking for a service dog or their families who come looking for help,” said LaDonna’s husband and dog trainer, Jim Harkins. Jim is a veteran and suffers from some symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder himself. He found relief by training his own service dog and currently runs a small business specializing in obedience and service dog training called Nightfury Trainers.


Jim said that after the service he had trouble being around people, especially crowds. He was very uncomfortable standing in long lines, for instance. Out in public he always wanted to sit with his back to the wall or with a mirror in which he could see behind him.


“A service dog is taught to serve as a barrier wall for you,” said Jim. He said that when standing in line with his own dog, the dog will stand behind him.


“It gives me the feeling that someone is watching my back,” he said. “It helps me relax.” He said that having a service dog around is relaxing for people in general.


According to Harkins, a service dog can be trained to do many things other than barrier work. They can remind a person to take medicine at the proper time, or other things tailored to a person’s specific needs. They can be trained to stand as a brace to use when getting up after a fall, for instance.


“Specific dogs are found and trained for specific people with specific needs,” said Harkins. “The person is involved from the beginning.” He said he will ask someone about what breed they want or feel most comfortable with.


“Everyone is different,” he said. “But you want a dog that will work best for them.”


Harkins said some dogs do seem to take the training a little better than others. He said Labradors might be the best, in his opinion, but Rottweilers and Pit Bulls were also good breeds for this kind of training.


Most of the dogs are trained from birth, he said, and training is very intense, lasting from six to nine months and sometimes a year or more.


When picking out a dog, according to Harkins, you test it for temperament.


“You’ve got to do things and see how the dog reacts and see what its standards of acceptance are. I look for a docile temperament but also one that is eager and playful. That’s important and makes them easier to train,” he said.


But training a service dog takes more than a few lessons on the lawn. Service dogs go everywhere with a person, so training them means going everywhere as well.


“It’s important that they go places like restaurants and shops, we take them to airports, to shooting ranges,” said Harkins. “We try to expose them to most everything.” The dogs get little patches and pins to wear on their working vests indicating what they have special training in, like a little pair of wings to show they are trained for flying on airlines.


Based on all this training, service dogs get a little special recognition in the law. They are allowed to go in places that other dogs are not allowed. In fact, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, a business owner may ask if the animal is a service dog and what tasks it is specifically trained to do, but they cannot require special identification for the animal, ask about the person’s disability, charge additional fees for the dog, or refuse admittance, isolate, segregate or treat this person less favorably than other patrons. Any business that sells or prepares food must allow service animals in public areas, even if state or local health codes prohibit animals on the premises. A business owner can still generally prohibit pets but must make an exception for a working service dog.


But all work and no play can make Fido a dull boy. These dogs don’t have to worry about that. For a working dog, play is as important as work. Put their work jacket on and these dogs are impeccably behaved, they are at attention and they are focused on their work, but take off the vest and, boom! They are off running, jumping, and sniffing around like any young pup.


LaDonna, who has worked over the years in law enforcement, dispatching and as an emergency medical technician, has seen how being exposed to work-related trauma can affect people. She said that when she looked at her husband’s business and how he had supplied service dogs to veterinarians in Superior, Missoula, Ravalli County and Kalispell, and the benefits that her own husband enjoyed from having a trained dog, she said, “I thought it would be neat to provide dogs at little or no cost to veterans and other people from law enforcement and emergency response. I thought, if we can do it for us, why can’t we do it for someone else,” she said, and that was the beginning of her efforts to start the non-profit.


“You can tell by her past jobs that she is a community driven person,” said husband Jim. “She wants to help the community. I have to applaud her for sticking with this. She started this on her own and I told her straight out, if you are going to do this, do it! It’s been a year now and she is giving away her first dog. She has found something that she can really put her heart into.”


Anyone interested can contact LaDonna Harkins at 406-381-1106, or go to Free training sessions for people who want to train their own dog are held on Saturdays.

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