These service dogs are learning to read

Deaf and hard-of-hearing students learn job skills while training canines to undertand sign-language

By Nick Jebsen
For The Taos News
Posted 7/25/19

Members of the Canine-Assisted Leadership crew - a new partnership between Rocky Mountain Youth Corps and the New Mexico School for the Deaf in Santa Fe - gathered at …

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These service dogs are learning to read

Deaf and hard-of-hearing students learn job skills while training canines to undertand sign-language

Posted

Members of the Canine-Assisted Leadership crew - a new partnership between Rocky Mountain Youth Corps and the New Mexico School for the Deaf in Santa Fe - gathered at the Taos Plaza July 8 as part of an exercise to train service dogs. Youth trainers used sign language with one another and the dogs, who remained remarkably calm despite the lunchtime crowds, not to mention the presence of a dreadlocked man playing loud, eerie songs on a didgeridoo.

"The idea is to get [the dogs] used to different kinds of stimulation," explained Denise Dumesnil, the group's supervisor and a clinical social worker.

There wasn't much talking; the group's sign language translator hadn't showed up that day, which Dumesnil saw as an opportunity for the hearing members of the group - herself included - to practice their sign language. Which they did, alternating between signing commands to the dogs, who obeyed with rapt attention, and telling jokes among themselves and Denise.

"Our dogs are typically trained to respond to verbal commands," Dumesnil explained back at the group's headquarters off the plaza. "It's the first time they're working with visual commands, which is especially helpful for dogs working in courthouses. They have to be able to handle a lot of emotion, and sit in places unseen and unheard for long periods of time."

Throughout the process, trainers are carefully watching the dogs to try to determine what role they might be best suited for. Though most people think of seeing eye dogs when they hear the phrase "service animal," the dogs trained by the Canine-Assisted Leadership Crew will eventually be working in hospitals, courtrooms and shelters offering emotional support to the unwell and distraught. One of their dogs might, for example, visit a cancer patient, or lie at the feet of a child testifying in court.

"Emerson [short for Ralph Waldo] likely will be a courthouse facility dog because he loves to be still for long periods of time and he loves to be petted by children," Dumensil explained. "Stubbs likely will be a mobility service dog, based on his love of retrieving items dropped on the floor. … [He's] great at opening doors and cabinets, a workaholic."

"We try to place them based on their natural habits," said Eve Benson-Core, a recent graduate of Vista Grande High School.

The kennels are kept at the Juan I. Gonzales Agricultural Center, 202 Chamisa Road, where classes are also held.

For many of the youth trainers, working on the Canine Assisted Leadership Crew is their first job. As such, Dumensil makes a point of emphasizing skills that will serve them well in their future career, but also in New Mexico's competitive job market.

"I really make a point of emphasizing the soft skills ... personal relationships and that kind of thing," Dumensil said. However, she makes a point of being as comprehensive as possible, requiring her trainers to work toward their serve-safe and CPR/first aid certifications as well.

Dumesnil is particularly eager to serve as an employment reference for her trainers from New Mexico School of The Deaf, and for good reason; the unemployment rate for deaf Americans is staggeringly high, with only 40 percent employed full time nationwide, according to the Yang-Tan Institute at Cornell University's analysis of 2016 American Community Survey data.

"There is [a] stigma hiring the deaf," Dumensil sighed, "but, as a hearing boss, I can attest to their ability to do the work."

While training service dogs can be serious business, Dumesnil encourages her trainers to find joy and meaning in their work, a notion which was reflected in their comments about working with the dogs. When asked what she liked best about training the dogs via email, Monica Chavez, of the New Mexico School for the Deaf, said she enjoys the problem-solving aspect of her job. "I am learning patience and consistency with the dogs. Even when they are being stubborn, you have to be consistent to make sure they understand the cues you are giving them."

For Jesus Rios-Pena, also of the New Mexico School for the Deaf, it was the chance to learn new things. "If something doesn't work, especially with Emerson the dog I train, who can be low-energy, you have to find different ways to get them to work."

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