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By LOU ELLIOTT JONES
Kay Gaither just winces every time she hears a parent telling their child that her husband’s service dog, Honey, is going to bite.
“They say watch out, he’s going to bite you. He’s going to attack,” Gaither told the Greater Chiefland Chamber of Commerce at the group’s April 25 meeting.
Gaither, who was there to announce a new program about K-9s for Levy County Schools, said it is important for parents to not give children the wrong impression about service, therapy, military and law enforcement K-9s. Kids for K-9s will debut in Williston schools this month. The children will be taught about the various working dogs and each child will be given a “baseball trading card” that tells about one of the dogs working in Levy County.
The important message for the children is service dogs do not attack people, Gaither said. Unless it is a military or law enforcement K-9 who can track and subdue suspects in situations that could present a danger to their human partner.
The Levy County Sheriff’s Office has four K-9 officers and animal partners, Gaither said. One is the first to be certified in detecting explosives, Rossi, whose handler is Kevin Knish.
And there is a possibility that same K-9 could be a child’s salvation.
“They (children) are told if they get lost to hug a tree,” she said. “And a K-9 may be the first one to find them, so they need to know they can hug them.”
The working dogs wear identifying gear that has patches identifying them and admonishing to not pet the dog. The reason for not petting a working animal is that it could be a distraction that could cause a problem for their owner/handler, Gaither said.
But to help children better identify with these animals, Gaither has teamed with Haven Hospice Volunteer Coordinator Vondla Sullivan and Barbara Snow of the War Dogs Association to put together a curriculum for third grade students to acquaint them with the working dogs. Sullivan works with dog owners who have certified therapy animals who visit the residents at the Haven Hospice of the Tri-Counties care center in Chiefland.
In the school program, students will get to meet Michael Gaither’s therapy dog, Honey the Wonder Dog, and the Chamber members did. Honey accompanies Michael Gaither everywhere. He has post traumatic stress as a result of his military service. Honey alerts and gently awakens Michael Gaither when he has a bad dream.
“You might ask what a dog would do for PTSD,” Michael Gaither asked the Chamber members. “Well, I would not be here today if it were not for Honey.” He said she has a calming effect on him.
Mr. Gaither said over time his mental condition progressed to where he only left his home for medical appointments at the Veterans Administration medical center in Gainesville. But with Honey by his side he now goes many places. In the past two out of three years, Honey the Wonder Dog has been named the No. 2 service dog in the nation.
“I am now able to lead a halfway normal life,” he said. “I am able to function now because of her.”
Mr. Gaither said only the dog’s partner can feed the animal and give it treats.
Those treats are for doing good deeds.
Angie Korab, a registered nurse who trains service dogs, demonstrated how she trains Hannah. Korab said the training starts when the animal is three weeks old. They are tested for temperament, for characteristics that might disqualify them. “Any fear issue can disqualify them,” Korab said.
The trainers create stressful situations and watch the dog’s reaction carefully.
“The prey drive, when they want to chase and kill ― that’s not good,” Korab said. “That’s because at the other end of the leash is a disabled person.”
She said the dogs learn to function in society. “We want them to be friendly, but we want them to be a little reserved,” Korab said.
Korab said she uses a “clicker” to train the dogs in various behaviors, such as picking up keys dropped on the floor that is rewarded with a treat. “After a while when they hear the clicker they will start offering behaviors so that you will offer them a treat.”
Barbara Snow also presented another side to the job of working dogs ― military service. She related how once the military K-9s were trained to protect American soldiers using lethal force and as a result their owners never got to bring them home to retire as many law enforcement officers can do. Snow said the military dogs were put to sleep and were not honored as combatants.
One veteran’s family had contacted Snow about the patriarch’s combat dog in Vietnam who was put to sleep when the soldier came home at the end of the war. The family had a wall done in the home honoring the father’s military achievements, but something was missing. “He just looked at the wall and he said ‘My dog never got anything.’ "
Snow said she helped the family add the dog to the commemoration and she told the man, “Your dog is an American hero.”
How military dogs are treated has changed, Snow said. The dogs are not killed and can retire from service with their honors earned sniffing out bombs, guarding military bases and troops and locating harmful items.
“God gave them so many abilities to help us,” Snow said. Some of those include public safety and freedom, she said.