Anyone who has shared their home with a beloved pet knows the joy that companion animals bring. For many people with physical, mental or emotional disabilities, specially trained animals are even more important, providing a lifeline to independence, security and well-being. Dogs in particular can guide the blind, signal the hearing-impaired, perform tasks for those with limited mobility, calm and socialize children with autism, sense and respond to seizures, provide therapeutic comfort to the mentally ill, and much more. Due to the high risk of physical and psychological injury inherent in their work, military veterans and first responders are one of the major groups that may benefit from the help of service or therapy dogs. Unfortunately, because qualified dogs can be expensive and time-consuming to train, they are in short supply to meet the increasing demand. But a program called Canines with Careers aims to change that, and New Jersey FOP member Sam Wike is working to connect veterans and first responders with the service dogs they need.

As a retired New Jersey Transit P.D. officer who also spent four years in EMS, served six years in the Army and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, I am well aware of the traumas that military, emergency and law enforcement personnel can experience. “Like everybody who’s been there, done that, I’ve seen and done things that 99% of the general population will never see, should never see and wouldn’t understand,” he says. As a former K-9 handler who is now a nationally certified professional dog trainer, he also understands firsthand how dogs can help. “My K-9 partner Sanders was not just my partner but my best friend, and I was fortunate enough to have him retire with me,” Wike explains. “Since his unexpected passing in 2010, I have been blessed to have three additional dogs in my life, all of whom in their own way have not only helped me live a better life, but, like Sanders, continue to be the impetus for me to work with dogs who have special needs and most recently with owners who suffer from various ailments as well.”

After 20 years of police work, I've now built a career as a respected dog trainer and behavior specialist. In 2008, I became involved with the Best Friends Animal Society, a national nonprofit animal welfare organization. I was invited to join a new initiative called the Community Training Partners Program, a network of trainers practicing force-free, science-based, positive-reinforcement methods to work with dogs from the Best Friends sanctuary in Utah and help them become more adoptable. I was asked to put together a team of trainers who would develop and institute programs at shelters to teach staff and volunteers about ways to handle dogs, enrich their lives, enhance their adoptability and reduce the number of pets surrendered by their owners. We launched a pilot program in New Jersey at the Monmouth County SPCA, successfully increasing the number of dogs adopted and reducing the rate of euthanasia due to behavior issues. I also continued to visit the Best Friends sanctuary to work with behaviorally challenged dogs — including those rescued from the Michael Vick dogfighting ring — and further develop the Community Training Partners Program. 

In 2011, I was invited to become a trainer for another of Best Friends’ initiatives, Canines with Careers. This innovative program is designed to increase the number of trained career dogs available to help individuals with special needs, while simultaneously saving dogs at risk of being killed in shelters. Traditionally, career dogs are purebreds that are bred and raised as puppies for a specific purpose, but it takes about two years for the dogs to mature and be trained, with a cost of $10,000 to $40,000 each and a 50 percent failure rate, which leads to waiting lists of one or two years for a qualified dog. Canines with Careers offers an alternative model that has the potential to help both people and dogs quickly and economically. Many shelter dogs are excellent candidates for careers, but they are often overlooked by handlers who don’t have the knowledge or experience to recognize their attributes. The Canines with Careers program teaches trainers, shelter staff, rescue groups and others how to identify, screen, select, train and place appropriate young-adult shelter and rescue dogs for career work. “Through the Canines with Careers program, we have been able to successfully train dogs we’ve found through shelters and rescues for $2,000 to $3,000 and in most cases in under six months,” says Program Director Sherry Woodard. This approach can also be more efficient: Undesirable physical and behavioral attributes that can’t be screened for in puppies are evident in the young-adult dogs, and the rigorous selection process means that training time is spent only on dogs that have the greatest potential for success. Ultimately, this results in more trained dogs available to those in need.

As a Canines with Careers trainer, I am focusing my efforts on finding assistance dogs for military veterans and first responders, inspired not only by my own experience but also by my father (a Korean War veteran, cop and firefighter) and many other officers I've known. “I’ve listened to them and understand what they go through when they’re all alone in the middle of the night, or when some sight, sound or smell flashes them back to something they’d really rather not remember." We see service and therapy dogs are used more frequently in hospitals, rehabilitation centers, schools, colleges and mental health facilities through the U.S., and an ever increasing number of studies have documented the soothing effects that dogs can have, including lowering blood pressure and heart rate, resuming normal breathing and providing reassurance without judgment. “Service dogs bring them comfort, allow them to de-escalate and come back to the world. They are with them when no one else is, or when no one else can understand what is happening or how to handle it.”   

While Canines with Careers has worked to match military members with service dogs before, I will be the first in the program to specifically reach out to first responders. With the help of psychotherapist Stephanie Samuels, we will be looking for law enforcement officers, firefighters and medical responders in the New Jersey area who have incurred physical or mental injuries due to their service and could be helped by a service dog. If an individual already has a dog they’d like to train to assist them, I will evaluate both the human and the dog to see if this is possible. It may take two to three hours or even several sessions for me to make an informed decision, but the assessment is paid for by a grant through the Best Friends Animal Society at no cost to the individual. If I determine that the existing pet will be a good candidate for training, I’ll work with the owner at a reduced rate to train the dog for its needed purpose. If the pet isn’t a viable candidate, or for those who don’t already have a dog, I will search for and evaluate appropriate shelter dogs at no cost. Once I find a suitable dog, I’ll train it for service at a reduced rate.  

I've already worked with three dogs that assist people with mental health issues, but must emphasize that screening and training a dog for career work is an intensive process. When assessing a canine candidate, handlers look for good health and an appropriate temperament —confidence, attentiveness to people, adaptability, lack of aggression, and the ability to be calm. When training, the dog needs to learn and practice many basic life skills and behaviors (such as sitting, staying, coming when called, walking on a leash, and being handled and groomed), as well as more specialized skills, which might include pulling, retrieving, speaking, searching, or responding to a human’s emotional state. Furthermore, to ensure that it can remain relaxed and focused while working, the dog must be exposed to a wide array of people, animals, sounds, smells, objects, locations and activities so that it will be comfortable in a variety of situations and adapt easily to new scenarios. Teaching the dog’s human counterpart is important as well. “Both the service member and the dog are students. We train them together so that they can build that bond, create that partnership. Both sides have to build and nurture trust so that no matter what the environment or situation, they can count on each other.”

Although getting the program off the ground in New Jersey has been challenging while I also continue to run my own dog-training and behavior modification business, work with veterinarians to stay abreast of the latest animal-behavior research, and serve as a consultant to numerous shelters and rescue organizations, Canines with Careers is truly special to me and I am passionate about moving it forward. “The single best aspect of this work is that it saves lives: a person’s and a dog’s. If matching one dog with one member means that person and that dog can find comfort, solace, peace and a better quality of life, then that means two lives saved.”

For more information about me, be sure to visit my Facebook page at www.facebook.com/TheInnerDog. For more information about Canines with Careers, visit www.facebook.com/BFsearchandservicedogs. If you are interested in finding a service dog and you live New Jersey or the tri-state area, you can contact me at (732) 963-7101 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . Those outside the area may contact Sherry Woodard at (435) 644-2001 x4222 This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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