Training Canine Assistants: A Labor of Love
“Settle,” commands John Pedrick, rolling a 7-week-old golden retriever on her back, rubbing her belly as he establishes human dominance. “Snuggle,” he says next, placing the puppy’s snout against his neck to teach her to approach people.
For the last six years, Pedrick has volunteered with the Canine Assistants program, located on 15 acres near his hometown of Atlanta, where he trains dogs to assist disabled people with activities of daily living.
“I’m persistent, but not very patient. This is good training for me as well,” he says. Practicing restraint also comes in handy in his day job as a federal administrative law judge. “Dealing with lawyers all day long often tries my patience.”
Pedrick decided to study law after earning his master’s degree in marine studies. He chose Lewis & Clark Law School because he fell in love with its Natural Resources Law Institute.
He then went to work for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, addressing marine resource and admiralty law issues. “I held seven different jobs at NOAA and eventually ran out of new things to do,” says Pedrick.
Since accepting a federal judgeship in 1994, he has been hearing mainly medical cases related to disability, Medicare, and caregiver neglect or abuse.
Pedrick plans to retire next year, volunteer at the Georgia Aquarium, and expand his work with Canine Assistants. The program graduates about 70 dogs each year at a cost of $10,000 to $15,000 each. Disabled people who qualify receive a dog at no charge.
A certified trainer, Pedrick has 89 commands in his repertoire. He can train a dog to open and close doors, drawers, and the refrigerator (without eating anything) and to help make a bed, carry things, and hand its owner a coin purse in a store.
He specializes in presenting the program to civic groups and in working at the puppy barn, training tykes from 7 weeks to 8 months old. Though trainers avoid establishing a personal bond with the dogs, they sometimes take them home on weekends for house training.
Pedrick still remembers Barney, a soft and easy-to-train golden retriever.
“By the end of the first day, he’d decided I was definitely his kind of guy,” says Pedrick. “He settled between my feet, put his head on my chest, and gazed at me.”
Barney has since graduated and gone on to be a loving servant and companion.
“For everyone involved, the entire process is truly a life-changing experience,” says Pedrick.
–by Pattie Pace