Paws for a loving cause

By Grania Litwin
Times-Colonist Living staff –

DAVE COOK never thought he would be able to own a dog again.”I had a dog when I was 16, but now that I have a deterioration of the nerves that lead to the muscle—a kind of ALS—I didn’t think I could cope with the physical demands of a big dog.”

Yet after only about five weeks of training, his seven-month old puppy, a golden retriever, is a model of obedience.

“I took the course and a couple of refreshers, and I’m really enjoying the companionship,” said Cook, who works as a project manager at CFB Esquimalt. “Everyday when I come home she’s there waiting for me.” “The secret is in the training”, says Ben Kersen who is currently working with two disabled men, including Cook.

Neither of the men has a lot of strength in their arms, and Cook has a slight speech impairment and has to rely on hand signals as well as voice commands.

Yet both men have already achieved a reasonable amount of control over their dogs.

“And I’m confident any dog can do what my dog does,” says Cook who holds up a hand while she drops to the ground during a training session at Clover Point. “She’s got me figured out perfectly.”

The dog will sit on command, lie down, heel to the chair without pulling its master and will gallop back to Cook when he yells “hey.”

Kersen has worked with dogs for 15 years and has three collies which he calls The WonderDogs because they have a repertoire of 400 tricks. He trains at Clover Point expressly because of all the distractions.

As Cook puts his dog through her paces, children play nearby, people are flying kites and Kersen throws Frisbees to one of his dogs to try and tempt the young retriever.

Dog drill is very different when working with disabled people. The pets quickly learn their masters cannot get up and chase them so it is essential the pet be trained to return immediately when the owner calls says Kersen, owner of Ben Kersen and the Wonderdogs. With this in mind, training begins with a 45-kilogram test line, for large dogs, and owners give generous rewards in the form of pats and food treats.

If the dog runs away when the owner calls, it gets a corrective snap on the line and a firm “no.”

Once control is achieved, the owner can progress to off-leash exercises.

Ben Kersen & The Wonderdogs