Partnership pairs Chattanooga area businesses with service dogs-in-training

Partnership pairs Chattanooga area businesses with service dogs-in-training

March 7th, 2016 by Emmett Gienapp in Local Regional News

Ramona Nichols, director of training for Georgia Canines for Independence, left, escorts Frank, an 8-month-old golden retriever, through the first-floor offices at UNUM to visit with employees Rita Boyer and Vikki Ledbetter on Feb. 24. GCI brings dogs to UNUM every Wednesday to help acclimate their service dogs to a workplace environment and donates them to people in need once they are fully trained. "This really is the highlight of my day," Vikki Ledbetter said. "I've always wanted a golden retriever."

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

"This really is the highlight of my day." Vikki Ledbetter said. "I've always wanted a Golden Retriever."

"This really is the highlight of my day."...

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

For many dog owners, it's hard enough to teach their furry companions not to bark at squirrels through the window all day or scatter a week's worth of trash through the kitchen.

But training a dog to open a door or turn on a light switch? That's a job for the volunteers at Georgia Canines for Independence.

GCI specializes in training service dogs to assist people living with physical disabilities and mobility impairments. And by the time a dog graduates from the two-year program, it's capable of doing pretty much anything short of driving its owner to work.

From the time they are adopted as puppies, the golden retrievers the nonprofit trains are brought up to understand approximately 90 voice commands intended to make daily tasks easier for people with physical limitations.

That could be anything from picking up a pen to closing a drawer, and because of some of the people they will help face restrictive disabilities, the dogs need to be able to work with little more than simple voice commands.

"We put a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of these dogs," said Ramona Nichols, founder and executive director of GCI.

Nichols has spent years working with service dogs, training them day in and day out at home. She says it offers a sense of confidence and security to people whose lives have been changed dramatically.

She said when a dog is partnered with a human, "they literally have that person's life in their paws."

Part of the transition from restless puppy to a loyal and calm companion that can settle under a work desk for hours involves acclimating the dog to other people and a host of unexpected distractions.

To help with that, Unum Insurance partnered with GCI for a program called Dog at Your Desk. It brings service dogs in training to the office every week to accompany trained volunteers during their workdays.

Employees like Donna Dravland take the dogs on elevators, walk them around the office and work with them on basic commands.

"They love coming," she said. "It's a great experience, and they're learning how to make a huge difference in someone's life."

Dravland has volunteered with the organization for three years and says she loves the work. Plus, she says, having a dog sit under her desk brightens up the office immensely.

"Oh, these guys are celebrities around here," she said while petting a golden retriever named Frank.

Since 2010, GCI has sent nine dogs to people across the area at no cost to the new owners. The organization also has a lifetime followup policy in order to maintain the high performance needed for the dogs to fulfill their duties.

Nichols said it can be a sentimental experience to see them go to a new home, but she knows they're going out to make the lives of others easier. And because of the followup policy, there are always plenty of opportunities to see their longtime friends again.

"We are so proud to see them go," she said. "But it's more of a 'see you later' than a final goodbye."

Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at egienapp@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6731.