Glen Ellyn teen trains dogs to serve people with disabilities
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When sirens sound in Glen Ellyn, a year-old golden retriever named Friday doesn't cower, whine or run for a place to hide.
Instead, she looks to her handler, 16-year-old Morgan Riley, decides she can safely ignore the noise and calmly settles at Morgan's feet.
If you go
What: Presentation on Canine Companions
When: 2 p.m. July 13
Where: Glen Ellyn Public Library, 400 Duane St., Glen Ellyn
Info: (630) 469-0879 or gepl.org
It's a good sign, because Friday is in training to become a service dog and pooches that help people with disabilities must always be attentive to their owners and can't be rattled by distractions.
"We like to call it invisible dog," Morgan says. "They have to walk right next to you and not pull at all."
Friday is the sixth puppy Morgan has raised for Canine Companions for Independence, a national, nonprofit organization that provides trained assistance dogs for children, adults and veterans with physical and developmental disabilities.
Morgan will give a presentation on service dogs and bring Friday with her at 2 p.m. Saturday, July 13, at the Glen Ellyn Public Library, 400 Duane St.
She says she's given similar presentations to classmates and Boy Scouts.
"They thought it was so cool," she says.
Love for dogs
Morgan got involved in Canine Companions when she was in second grade and offered to help a person in her church raise a puppy. She received her first puppy to train on her own as a fifth-grader. By the time she graduates from Glenbard West High School two years from now, she expects to have raised eight dogs for Canine Companions.
"I love dogs and I always wanted a dog," Morgan says. "My first dog ever was the training dog."
Morgan's mom, Christina, says she and her husband wanted to make sure from the start that Morgan knew raising a dog was a serious responsibility. Before Morgan received her first puppy, her dad made her get up at 7 a.m. for two weeks and walk around the block to show she was committed to training the animal.
"We made it very clear from the beginning that Morgan has all the responsibility," Christina says. "If it's winter and a blizzard, she still takes the dog out."
Morgan receives the puppies when they are 8 weeks old and raises them until they are 18 months. During that time, she potty trains them and teaches them 30 basic commands, including to sit, stay, put their paws on a person's lap in a comforting gesture and to lie quietly under a table. The dogs then receive another six months training before they can graduate and be assigned to an owner.
The canines may become service dogs to someone with a physical disability, skilled companions, hearing dogs or facility dogs working in a medical or educational setting.
"A lot of them don't make it through," Morgan says. "We kind of know which ones will make it or not, but sometimes they can surprise you. Some dogs need more time to mature."
Four of the five dogs Morgan raised went on to become full-time service dogs, but normally only 40 percent complete the final training. The rest may become pet therapy dogs working part-time in hospitals, schools or senior centers, or they may be released to the trainer or someone the trainer knows.
The success of the training depends a lot on the dog's temperament.
"They have to be really docile. They have to have that drive to work," she says. "They also need to be very lovable."
Labrador retrievers are hardworking, but because many of them develop hip problems, folks who breed service dogs often cross them with golden retrievers. Full-bred goldens such as Friday like to cuddle and be close to people, but are less docile than Labs.
"They can be a lot more hyper and difficult. That's why she (Friday) is a challenge," Morgan says.
Morgan takes the dogs she trains downtown, into restaurants, and to her Anima youth chorus rehearsals so they can learn good manners in public. The dogs also learn basic commands that later will help when they are assisting someone with a disability.
For instance, a dog that has learned "up" means putting front paws on a wall may later use that action to turn light switches on and off.
Christina cares for the dogs when Morgan isn't home, and her dad and sister help socialize them by playing with them. But there's no tug-of-war, jumping on people or barking, Christina says. The dogs must be ready to obey a command at any time.
"If you see a squirrel run by, they're not supposed to watch the squirrel," she says.
The dogs are provided free to people with disabilities. The puppy raisers provide all the food, medical care and any special training classes they may enroll the dogs in while they are under their care.
"It's our volunteer charity thing," Christina says. "I can't think of any better charity to be involved with."
When the dogs are ready to graduate and be paired with a person with a disability, Morgan and her family travel to Canine Companion's regional center in Ohio to be there for the ceremony. Her last dog, Thunder, went to a 16-year-old boy who has texted pictures to show how Thunder helps in ways that include fetching his water bottle from the refrigerator and picking up the phone. But not all the recipients choose to keep in contact.
"It's more their choice to stay in touch with us," Morgan says.
She says giving up the first puppy she raised was tough, but now she's gotten used to it.
"I know they are going to a really good cause," she says.
Then there's always a new puppy to train. Morgan receives a puppy three months before her last dog leaves so there's always an overlap.
"The older one kind of teaches the little one how to do everything," she says. "It just helps."
This summer Morgan also is using her dog expertise to work three days a week at Dog-n-Scrub in Glen Ellyn. The incoming junior at Glenbard West also plays golf and is looking toward a career in fashion merchandising.
Christina says raising dogs has taught Morgan responsibility, problem-solving skills, the importance of setting high expectations and keeping her eye on the reward down the line.
"We kind of call her the dog whisperer," Christina says. "She seems to know what to do and keep her focus all the time."
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