Service dog trainers with Occupaws demonstrate intense demands of certified animals
MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- We’ve all seen dogs wearing guide vests, helping people with disabilities. Here in Wisconsin, there’s a chance that dog may have been raised by the Occupaws Guide Dog Association based in Madison. There’s also a branch in Milwaukee. David Triscari is a volunteer coordinator who’s helping train future guide dogs for the visually impaired.
“Yes! Good job, Mister,” Triscari called out to a young black Labrador named Zion.
Triscari is all about positive reinforcement when it comes to dog training. Treats help, too.
“This is where labs want to be because the food's right here,” he said, patting his pocket, as yellow lab, Winston, stands by his side.
It’s a motivating combination for these dogs, who are working to become guide dogs for people who are blind. There are tiny black lab puppies who are just 11 weeks old in the group.
“Pet her, tell her she was good. It's just keeping it positive,” Tricari said.
And some dogs who are six to seven months old, have been training a while longer.
“It's a very cool thing to help everybody and kind of organize things and really see all of the dogs grow up together,” he said about his classes.
Triscari leads training sessions all over town, like one CBS 58 recently attended at The Corners of Brookfield. Volunteer puppy-raisers bring their dogs to teach them skills and help them get socialized.
“A lot of more basic obedience, being involved in situations like this, exposure to new sounds, sights, things that a dog might not always see, but has to be prepared for,” said volunteer Blake Hartung, who brought her poodle, Zander.
They’re learning skills both simple and challenging.
“If these three dogs take this food, I will not be happy,” Triscari said with a smile.
The challenge is for the dogs to ignore treats left on the ground. Triscari has been at this for almost two years, but he said it’s his wife, Cindy, who gave him the push to get started.
“She was telling me all about it and if I wanted to do it, and I said, yeah, it sounds like fun! And she said, well, good. The application is submitted already,” he said with a laugh.
They’re now raising one of the lab puppies, named Aspen. Triscari remembers all of the dogs he’s fostered before.
“Definitely for the working dogs I have now -- Felix was my first, Java is another dog working today, Noble, renamed to Nimble,” he recalled.
He didn’t start out as a professional trainer, but said he and his wife both had experience with dogs.
“I like to say that my wife is a lot of the knowledge, and I'm the big mouth,” he said.
Their skills are helping them teach a future generation of dogs, all of whom are being raised in homes -- homes like Diane Meinecke’s.
“He's very smart. I think they're all smart,” she said of her dog, Zion.
Meinecke said Triscari is a key to their success.
“Dave is an awesome resource for us, that provides not just support in how we can train our dog, but encouragement,” she said.
Hartung said she volunteered to raise a puppy in her home after seeing her mom volunteer with Occupaws.
“Quarantine had just hit, I was like, you know what? I really want a dog, but I'm not ready to commit,” she explained.
She’s had several dogs since the pandemic started.
“I love it because not only do you get to meet a bunch of dogs, but it's good to be able to take them out into places that you wouldn't normally,” she said. “A lot of times people ask, oh what is this, what is this organization?”
Meinecke said you don’t have to know a lot about raising dogs to become a volunteer.
“You actually don't. They provide all of the training for us,” she said.
The goal is for the dogs to eventually graduate from being raised in a volunteer home, and to go on to more specialized training. Triscari said about 30% of the dogs who start the program go on to become guide dogs.
“It's a pretty emotional time,” he said of watching the dogs graduate. “It's never easy, but I would never want it to be easy, because that means we're really part of something special.”
He said it also gives him a sense of purpose and the chance to change someone’s life for the better.
“They're usually totally speechless because it completely changes their outlook on what they can do,” he said of the people who become owners of a guide dog, free of charge.
For more information on Occupaws, just visit www.occupaws.org.