Emerging training program provides career opportunities, companions for vets

For the dogs at California Canine Center, “sit” and “paw” are just child’s play. Wooden crates and concrete floors give a serious, borderline military feel to the training center, where fresh recruits become full-fledged service dogs for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.

The newly established training program, which begins the first week in April, will serve a dual purpose of helping people become dog trainers while also producing service animals. Unlike most training programs, which teach people to handle their house dogs, California Canine Center uses rescued shelter dogs as learning tools for people who want to start dog-training businesses. At the end of the 10-week program, the dogs they train will be donated to veterans with PTSD.

Veterans need well-trained dogs who can alleviate stress, said Erin Kramer, co-director of the center. The $7,500 program, which is accepting applications, is open to anyone who wishes to become a dog trainer. Students will work 35 hours per week with a provided dog, who will live with them for the duration of the program.

“This is a field that people are typically drawn to for something beyond a paycheck,” Kramer said. “There’s a passion people have for dogs and helping owners and their dogs. … It’s not just about hugging and giving treats.”

The California Canine Center program will prepare participants to train house dogs, competitive obedience dogs, service dogs and therapy dogs. A service dog works solely for its handler while a therapy dog serves a group of people, such as terminally ill children.

The program will be taught by Kramer, who has years of experience training dogs for international competitions, and co-director Kevin Cameron, a veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Cameron was a kennel master and explosive detection dog handler in Iraq, and he was in charge of all explosive detection dogs in Afghanistan.

PTSD service dogs must be well trained, Kramer said, because a misbehaved pet can cause unnecessary stress for an already-sensitive veteran. Other than being a “good dog,” a veteran’s companion dog needs to be able to sense chemical and physiological changes in its handler’s body in order to react to panic attacks and provide security when strangers approach.

The dog can also provide a buffer for veterans who get nervous in public, Cameron said.

“Vets are very Type A; you give off a vibe and people stereotype you,” he said. “The dog starts the first interaction in a positive way. It helps a lot of vets go out to the mall or to a restaurant.”

The staff at Cameron’s nonprofit Alpha K-9 has been producing PTSD dogs for about two years, but this is the first program that will combine this service with a certification component. The program will offer discounts to veterans who wish to take the training class.

“The military mindset seems to do really well with dog training because they’re used to structure and rules and they have a certain firmness about them,” Kramer said. “If you’ve been hardened from combat, the dog is the companion that you can open up to.”

At Sacramento Valley Veterans, board member Gene Silvestri said he has noticed a visible increase over the past year in veterans coming to meetings with service dogs and has heard of veterans who desire service dogs but do not know where to get them. The more programs like this the better, he said.

“I know many veterans who rely heavily on the service dogs,” Silvestri said. “It brings you back to the moment that you’re in, and it really does calm everything down.”

Last year, the Alpha K-9 program pulled 14 dogs from the city of Sacramento’s Front Street Animal Shelter, including some older dogs which can be harder to place, said Lori Rhoades, foster rescue coordinator at the shelter. Kramer and Cameron also work with Sacramento County Animal Care and Homeward Bound golden retriever rescue.

“It’s definitely helpful for us,” Rhoades said. “It makes us feel good that our dogs who were abandoned or left behind are able to help veterans in need.”

While most active, friendly dogs can be used for service, midsized dogs like German shepherds, retrievers and Labradors have proved particularly successful, Kramer said. During the center’s program, students will go with instructors to local shelters and learn how to choose dogs with the temperament for training and service tasks.

Beyond providing a resource for veterans, the program also fills a gap in dog-trainer education. When Kramer decided she wanted to become a dog trainer in college, she had to go all the way to Canada to find a program that would certify her. The problem, she said, is that there are no state or federal laws requiring certifications for people who wish to open dog-training businesses. She said the lack of regulation results in a lot of uneducated trainers teaching bad dog habits.

Kramer said she would eventually like to publish a behavioral manual in order to promote the art and science of dog training.

“CCC is not a marketing tool for people to come get their dogs trained,” she said. “It’s meant to establish a set standard in the canine field.”

Editor’s Note: This story was changed to correct the last name of California Canine Center co-director Kevin Cameron. Changes also specify Cameron’s roles in Iraq and Afghanistan and clarify that Alpha K-9 is his nonprofit. The story stated that co-director Erin Kramer said veterans need dogs who can provide protection, but Kramer did not use the word “protection” and the center does not train dogs to serve a protective role. The story also said that Kramer plans to co-author a book about military-inspired dog training methods. She plans to write her own behavioral training manual that is not military-inspired.