Effingham Daily News, Effingham, IL

October 25, 2013

Dog helps boy rise above disabilities

Bill Grimes
Effingham Daily News

EFFINGHAM — When we last featured George the golden doodle in July 16, 2012, edition, he was just a little puppy getting acquainted with the Iffert family before moving on for extensive training.

George was “hired” by the Ifferts to be a service dog for young Hunter Iffert. Hunter, who was born with Down Syndrome, has multiple disabilities, and his family felt that a service dog would be helpful by the time Hunter started kindergarten this fall.

While George’s training wasn’t quite complete by the time school started in August, he finally came back home this month. And, he’s begun going to school with Hunter at Dieterich Elementary School.

George stayed with the Ifferts for 11 months before traveling to Orem, Utah, in March for service training with Molli Baker, director of training for Noelle’s Dogs Four Hope, a Colorado-based company that has trained dozens of service dogs for children with special needs.

Baker said the training she provided was critical to George’s success as a service dog.

“We just didn’t want to hand him over to the family without any training,” she said.

Once George arrived in Orem, Baker started getting to know him.

“He went with me everywhere I go,” she said. “He even went to church with me on Sunday.”

After finishing George’s puppy training, Baker began the process of teaching the pooch specialized cues that he will need to help Hunter function at an optimal level.

Baker said golden doodles make good service dogs because they combine the intelligence of a poodle with the easy-going nature of a golden retriever. Doodles have one other advantage that makes them particularly people-friendly.

“Most people who are allergic to dogs can handle a golden doodle,” she said.

Other dogs that make good service animals, Baker said, include golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers, Newfoundlands and Burmese mountain dogs.

Once George returned to Dieterich with Baker, they began the process of getting Hunter reacclimated to a large dog that was no longer a puppy. Baker said the boy is making great strides.

“He’s already made a lot of progress,” she said. “Hunter was still kind of nervous, but he seems much more confident with George around.”

For example, Baker said, Hunter took three steps by himself this week.

“George gives him a lot of confidence,” Baker said.

There are a variety of tasks that George helps Hunter with. For example, George is learning to support Hunter’s weight.

“George can brace himself and stand there to help Hunter stand up,” Baker said.

George is also being trained to fetch a medicine bag. In addition, he responds to an alarm on Hunter’s bed that shows that he is in distress.

“He’s trained to get Kiley (Hunter’s mother),” Baker said. “He will do something to wake her up, such as jump on top of her and lick her on the face.”

Dog and trainer actually arrived in Dieterich Sunday. That gave the Ifferts time to rebond with their friend.

But Monday, George was all business.

“George came to school and got right to work,” she said.

Baker said the in-school training was designed to let Hunter and George learn how to work together in a school setting.

Noelle’s CEO Tina Rivero said she has placed between 35 and 40 dogs with families across the United States. Another 40 are in various stages of training.

George has a full-time handler who will attend school with the boy and dog. Michelle Bloemer has no experience as a dog handler, but as Hunter’s primary caregiver while mom Kiley is at work, she was going to have to learn how to handle George. Other members of the team are Hunter’s classroom teacher Nichole Lidy and one-on-one aide Tracy Koester.

Baker emphasized that George is not the school pet. She made that clear during visits to each classroom this week. The other students are not allowed to pet or talk to George. Nor are they allowed to make funny noises around him.

“We went into each classroom and explained what a service dog was,” she said. “We don’t want the other kids to distract George from his work with Hunter.”

Hunter’s grandmother, Linda McKinney, said George has exceeded expectations.

“I think it’s going awesome,” McKinney said. “It’s amazing how helpful George can be.

“Not only will he go get Hunter’s diaper or medical bags, but he will lie down next to Hunter while we are changing his diaper, so he won’t move.”

Bill Grimes can be reached at 217-347-7151, ext. 132, or at bill.grimes@effinghamdailynews.com.