According to philosopher Bernard Williams, “There is no psychiatrist in the world like a puppy licking your face.” Imagine having four or five of them jockeying for attention, slipping and sliding as they try to gain favor. “Pet me!” “Give me treats!” “Play with me!”
But these young and slightly clumsy little chocolate, black and yellow English Labs aren’t here at Sunrise Springs Spa Resort’s Puppy Enrichment Center just to get their licks in. They’re here being trained to be service dogs for people with mobility impairments; traumatic brain injuries; combat injuries; autism spectrum, seizure, and emotional and anxiety disorders; developmental disabilities; and diabetes.
As part of their training, the dogs are taught to be patient as well as comfortable with being handled and spoken to by many different people in a variety of environments. When they’re older and ready to work, they will truly make a difference in their partners’ lives, helping them become more independent, self-reliant and confident.
This tranquil northern New Mexico resort is able to offer its guests opportunities to interact with the adorable Labs as part of its collaboration with Assistance Dogs of the West (ADW). Founded in 1995 in Santa Fe, ADW now has the largest assistance dog studenttraining program in the world.
The facility at Sunrise Springs is the brainchild of ADW’s founder, Jill Felice, and Sunrise’s Andy Scott. The two longtime friends decided that guests could benefit from contact with these healthy, welltempered dogs and observing their development and training firsthand. The puppies add another level to the spa experience, as do the Silkie chickens, also on the premises and available for guest interaction; the chickens are known for their calm temperament and fluff, which adds an additional layer of relaxation to this wellness oasis. (Marie Claire magazineis calls Sunrise Springs “the perfect escape for the animal lover.”)
The puppies are born at the resort, and staff trainers—professionals, student trainers ranging in age from eight to 18, and veterans with ADW’s Warrior Canine Connection—prepare the dogs to be mission-ready when they’re placed with their human partners. They teach the dogs 90 commands, including how to open doors; climb stairs one at a time; and “under,” which means to put their bellies on the ground under a chair or table when their person sits.
The dogs are also taught to step over Styrofoam tubes to learn agility, fetch rubber balls from a baby pool to learn retrieval skills and even to use a ramp. The trainers take them into public places to further refine the commands. All this helps the puppies become better problem solvers, smarter about handling the critical situations in which their future partners will require assistance.
The puppies’ spacious pen is set up in a large room, and guests are encouraged to interact with the dogs during visiting hours, known at the resort as Open Puppy Studio. In addition, there’s an adjacent playroom well stocked with toys, and a large pen out back. The puppies and their trainers are also free to roam the resort’s many acres of gardens, paths, walking trails and undeveloped land.
Guests are asked to remove their shoes and wash their hands before entering the center. Once they’re inside, Britte Holman, who runs the center and is the first supervisor of this new program, encourages them to engage with the puppies, and answers any questions they might have. She also reminds them that if they wave a ball at a puppy, they must toss it, because the dogs need to know how to follow through. When it comes to assistance dogs, this is especially critical, since when they’re on the job, their people will be relying on them to respond promptly and accurately to commands. This type of training is extremely demanding, as errors can have serious consequences for both dog and person.
Clickers are used to train the puppies, and the reward after a click is food. Other rewards include toys, pats and verbal praise. The clickers are also used to shape and reinforce critical behaviors. The trainers do not use the word “no,” and choke chain collars are never employed.
The dogs help to choose their human partners and are placed with them at two years of age. Some of ADW’s dogs are with their people for life; others work in facilities, such as children’s advocacy centers or with district attorney’s offices, spending their lives with their handlers in homes carefully screened by the organization before placement.
Like all of ADW’s training programs, the focus at the Puppy Enrichment Center is on the dogs’ mental, physical and emotional well being, all of which are important to the eventual heartfelt relationships they will forge with their people. They are truly four-legged solutions to human challenges. Come see for yourself.