SALEM — Travis Anderson leads Rose to an aisle of folding chairs and drops her leash.
“Back,” he says, nodding as she takes a few steps backward. “That’s it.”
Seconds later, Rose, a 1-year-old Labrador mix, reaches the end of the aisle and weaves around a chair– earning a treat.
“Dogs are so happy and innocent,” Anderson says, smiling as he prepares for the next task. “I’m always excited to work.”
Anderson was part of Oregon State Hospital’s new Service Dog Training Program when he lived on Bird 2. The only one of its kind among state psychiatric hospitals, the program enables OSH patients to train service animals before people in the community receive them.
So far, patients have helped train four dogs. In coming years, the hospital hopes to expand the offering to include six dogs and 12 patient handlers at a time.
For Tom Anhalt, director of the Vocational & Educational Services Department (VESD), the program is a dream come true.
“I hope it helps patients gain confidence in what they can do,” he said. “I want them to know they can gain the skills they need to make their lives better.”
An idea is born
Anhalt partnered with Joy St. Peter, founder and director of Joys of Living Assistance Dogs, to bring her program to the hospital. A Salem-based nonprofit organization, JLAD pairs dogs with people who have disabilities. St. Peter relies upon volunteers to follow her service dog training regimen for two years with young dogs. Afterward, the dogs graduate and are placed with people who need them.
Besides providing companionship and affection, the dogs are trained to be obedient and useful. They master nearly 100 commands, learning how to do everything from retrieve items to open automatic doors.
To date, JLAD has successfully trained and placed more than 60 dogs with new owners living across the country – including Oregon, Washington, California and Alaska. St. Peter credits much of her success to her handlers, including inmates at Shutter Creek Correctional Institution and Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution – and now patients at OSH.
“The ultimate goal is to help recipients lead fuller, more well-rounded lives,” she said. “But along the way, all of our lives are touched.”
When he was a part of the program, Anderson trained the dogs for about 12 hours a week. He learned how to groom the dogs and give them numerous commands. He also learned patience and improved his communication skills.
Anderson said he intends to use these skills when he’s discharged from the hospital. He wants to get a dog of his own – and he wants to volunteer with a local animal shelter.
“This has been the most beneficial program for me at the hospital,” he said. “It makes me feel connected with the community.”
For more information about the OSH Service Dog Training Program, please contact Tom Anhalt at 503-945-9978 or Doug Anderson, VESD program coordinator, at 503-947-2858.