Saving lives two at a time

Canine expert Janice Wolfe and her dog Wyatt are saving two lives at a time with a program called Merlin’s Kids, and invite others to help.

Merlin’s Kids transforms dogs’ lives by rescuing them from shelters, training them, and giving them a meaningful life purpose: to be service dogs for kids with special needs, veterans suffering from PTSD, and victims of domestic violence.

In essence, Wolfe says, the dogs save the kids and the kids save the dogs — a match made in heaven. Learn more at

Sherwood service animal case still pending

The practice of service animals accompanying children and young adults to school has increased in recent years, as the animals help monitor health conditions, keep their companions calm, and even from wandering off. But not all schools are sold on the idea.

John McDonald, a 7-year old with Autism, attends Middleton Elementary School in Sherwood. A community volunteer (and district employee) served as a handler for free the last two months of the 2014-15 school year so that John’s service dog Kai could attend school with him after the Sherwood School District demanded that John’s family provide a handler. On May 5, 2015, the Department of Justice launched an investigation into the matter, and the family retained Diane Wiscarson of Wiscarson Law. What will happen to John and Kai when school starts in September is uncertain at this time, says Wiscarson, whose practice is Oregon's only firm solely focused on special education family law. 

DogFest Walk ‘N Roll coming in September

The University of Portland campus welcomes a tail waggin’ good time at the Portland DogFest Walk N’ Roll Sept. 13.  This family- and dog-friendly event will be completely accessible, and benefits Canine Companions for Independence (CCI), a nonprofit dedicated to providing assistance dogs free of charge to those in need.  CCI has provided dogs for adults and children with disabilities such as spinal cord injuries, amputations, and deafness.  To learn more, contact


Thomas and Von's "Before" and "After"

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The Pongo Fund celebrated its 5 millionth meal November 10, and as is true of so many receiving help from the pet food bank, Thomas Peck and his dog Von have an extraordinary story. 

Thomas suffers bipolar disorder and PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) as a result of a car accident in 1994 in which his young female companion lost her life.  Thomas was the only one on the scene with first aid skills, and worked to save her on that rainy night.  Ultimately deemed caused by faulty engineering of the road, in addition to taking a young woman’s life, the accident caused deep and lasting harm to Thomas’s person, including flashbacks that take him out of his present reality and back to the horrific scene, including the smell of blood.

An executive pastry chef, Thomas moved from Oregon to Las Vegas and then Hawaii.  It was there he learned about “Hawaii Fi-do,” an organization providing service dogs — specifically Labradoodles — to individuals afflicted with PTSD and disabilities other than blindness.

Thomas started working with the organization, which has a two-year wait before matching clients with service dogs.  During the waiting period, clients prepare by participating in basic training with canines in the program.  During a class early on Thomas was told, “Here’s Von’s leash; work with him.” 

Thomas had been working with Von for about three months when he began experiencing a flashback during class.  Von “keyed into him,” says Thomas, nudging him out of the episode.  Seeing this, the instructors sent Von home with Thomas for the night.  That night turned into a week, and soon, the match was permanent.  Von had previously failed two prior matches due to “not listening well to the people he was to be placed with,” says Thomas, which was not the case with him.  He says, “It was like he chose me.”

“Von keys in and half the time notices warning signs [of a flashback] before I do,” says Thomas, explaining that Von’s nudging steers him out of an episode and anchors him in present reality.

Thanks to no quarantine entering Oregon from Hawaii, Thomas says bringing Von home wasn’t difficult, other than the “arduous seven-hour flight.”  “It was a bit cramped in coach,” he says.  “At 60 pounds, Von had half of his body under the seat.”

Helping celebrate The Pongo Fund’s 5 millionth meal seems right in line with the way things are going for this well-matched pair.  “Now that I have Von I’m getting off of Social Security and Disability through the Ticket to Work program,” says Thomas, “and I’m in school to become a civil engineer.”

Thomas says that as a service dog, Von is allowed to accompany him to The Pongo Fund.  He loves that, he says, as it allows Larry and the volunteers to see the happy faces and he and Von together.

“Without Pongo, I would not always be able to keep Von well-fed,” he says.  “And without Von, I don’t know what I would do.  What Larry does really helps me a lot and eases my worrries.”

Tales like Thomas and Von’s are a profound reminder of what The Pongo Fund is all about:  that “feeding the animals is feeding and healing the people.”

To follow Thomas and Von’s adventures, including fabulous photos, Like “Von Peck” on Facebook.


Kristan Dael is a freelance writer and the alter ego of Jennifer Mccammon. She lives in Portland with her 3-pack, and strives to produce articles that inform, edify, engage and entertain.

Raising Puppies for a Purpose

Pam and Ion waiting to cross a busy street in downtown Eugene.

Pam and Ion waiting to cross a busy street in downtown Eugene.

Guide Dogs for the Blind changes lives 

One by one, the group converges in front of the Eugene Public Library . . . tails wagging, eyes bright, sniffing and stretching.  Talking about dogs, of course, though their human companions are happy to see each other, too.  The puppies, ranging in age from five months to more than a year old, are here to learn the important skills they’ll need when they embark on careers as guide dogs for visually-impaired people.

Sue Burgess is the leader of the Eugene Puppy Raiser Club that meets up every Monday evening.  Her yellow Lab, five-month-old Yule, eyeballs a kid flying and jumping on a skateboard.  Excusing herself from the group, Burgess approaches the skateboarder to ask if her dog can check him out.  Permission granted, Yule gets to sniff and get to know the skateboard in a safe, non-confrontational manner.  That’s the kind of educational opportunity — for both the dog and the skateboarder — this group constantly seeks.  The more these dogs are safely exposed to now — crowds, buses, busy streets, Frisbees, squirrels, bouncing balls — the less they’ll get excited about when guiding their visually-impaired partners.

Today, Burgess, Marcia and 13-month-old Victoria, Pam and 10½-month-old Ion, and Louise with nine-month-old Florida, will ride the library elevator, ascend the large spiral staircase, walk through a nearby public bus station, and trek through bustling downtown blocks.  “We just show them the world,” says Burgess.  Each dog is wearing a green Guide Dogs vest that signifies they’re working.

As puppies, the dogs are transported by the national group Guide Dogs for the Blind up the 1-5 Corridor from San Rafael, CA, where they meet their trainers, such as these Eugene-area women.  After about 18 months the dogs return to California or to a Boring, OR, campus for more specialized training and to spend one-on-one time with the person they’ll ultimately be partnered with.  The trainers know it won’t be easy when the time comes for the dogs to leave.  “It’s like your kids are going off to college,” says Louise, “except they don’t write home for money.”  

It’s easy to joke, but the happiness of getting to know the dogs is tinged with sadness.  These women don’t want to have to say goodbye to their dogs, but know they’re training them for a higher purpose.  And, Louise says, when one dog graduates, every member of the puppy club goes along.  “It helps you get through it without being too sad,” she says.  “It’s a payoff for all your work, if you can call it that.”

Left to right: Pam and Ion, Louise and Florida,  Jan, Marcia and Victoria, and Sue and Yule.

Left to right: Pam and Ion, Louise and Florida,  Jan, Marcia and Victoria, and Sue and Yule.

If a dog has any sort of behavior problem that can’t be eliminated, such as timidity or being easily startled, he or she will not be matched with a blind partner.  Some dogs end up in the Guide Dogs breeding program, others as companions of a different sort.  Louise’s first dog, Slate, was taken out of training and paired with an autistic child.  “The little boy came out of his shell,” she says.  “Slate was his buddy.  I think that’s a good reason to raise a puppy.”

Louise’s dog, Florida, has an aversion to walking over grates in the street, so when that obstacle appears, Louise first guides Florida around it, then gives her a treat and praise when she successfully walks over it.  When out and about the group attracts lots of attention.  Louise says they’ve even received donations on the spot when interacting with people about the pups.  “Guide Dogs gets no federal money,” says Louse.  “It’s all from private contributions.”

While the members of the puppy club do the basic socializing all puppies should be exposed to, as future guide dogs, the bar is quite a bit higher.  The Guide Dog club provides an intensive manual for anyone interested in training a dog.  All trainers use the same command words and cues, and the same food.  By the time the dogs are done, their behavior is exemplary.

“We housebreak them, socialize, teach them basic obedience, show them morals in a gentle, easy way,” says Burgess.  “We have a list of toys they can’t have:  no balls, no Frisbees.  We don’t teach them to retrieve because it’s not something you want them to do when outside with their partner.  You want them to ignore that ball and ignore that Frisbee.  It’s a big thing we’re asking these dogs to do, and it’s life or death for the people they’re with.”

The Puppy Club on a walkabout near the Eugene downtown bus station.

The Puppy Club on a walkabout near the Eugene downtown bus station.

Marcia got involved in training puppies in 2008 after attending the graduation ceremony of a dog that had completed its training and was going to live with its blind partner.  “The first thing I noticed was that there were 12 dogs on stage and they didn’t care,” she recalls.  “They were so well-behaved.  It was so impressive, really an awesome sight.”  

Marcia was so impressed by the gratitude of those receiving their canine partners she was moved to get involved.  “It changes their life,” she says.


Guide Dogs for the Blind


Eugene Puppy Raisers Club,



Sirens and Lights: Meet Firedogs Cody and Casey

Standing their post in Eugene. Photo: Vanessa Salvia

Standing their post in Eugene. Photo: Vanessa Salvia

There’s nothing like a dog — or two — to remind one of what is important in life.  In Amy Linder’s case, her dogs Cody and Casey keep her focused, both in life and work.

Cody and Casey are each gorgeous Dalmatians, and Amy is Eugene’s Deputy Fire Marshall.  Dalmatians have a long history with the fire service . . . the tall and lean dogs were bred as runners to guide horse-drawn wagons, which fire trucks used to be.  Linder also has a long history with the fire service . . . her father and grandfather were both firefighters.  So it’s no surprise that Dalmatians are a big part of Linder’s life.

Linder first began training 8-year-old Cody to demonstrate fire safety when she lived and worked for the fire department in Washington.  She relocated to Eugene five years ago, and knew that if her public education program were to continue she needed a succession plan.  

“That’s when little Casey joined the ranks,” says Linder.  Cody is still a puppy, but he’s passed his “probationary firefighter” status and is now a full-fledged firedog.  “Casey had to start with basic training, all the things well-socialized dogs that are part of any family need to learn,” says Linder.  “Once that was complete we started the tasks of the specific fire safety behaviors that are the keys to our public safety education.”  Casey can demonstrate how to crawl under smoke, use a giant prop to demonstrate testing a smoke alarm, dial 911 (on a prop telephone), go to a meeting place, and stop-drop-and-roll.

In Oregon, Linder has grown ever more active in the dog community, training both Cody and Casey as therapy and crisis response dogs as well as deepening their commitments to the fire service.  “Cody was elected to the Oregon Firefighters Honor Guard that renders honors at the state Fallen Firefighters ceremonies and dedications,” she says.  “Cody was the elected member — not me.  He was provided an honor guard uniform and in a funeral he can be there to support the coworkers and family and friends who are going through the grieving process.  Casey has some big paw prints to follow.”

with Cody (l) and Casey.  Photo: Vanessa Salvia 

Amy with Cody (l) and Casey.  Photo: Vanessa Salvia 

Casey is already excelling in his responsibilities.  He spent much of October (fire safety month) visiting schools, and during the first weekend attended his first National Fallen Firefighters Foundation memorial weekend, which honors firefighters who die in the line of duty.

“It’s a weekend about support and honor and recognition of these families,” Linder says.  Cody has played a large role in that ceremony over the past three years, but now that he’s aging, it’s too big a trip for him, so this year was the passing of the torch.  Casey also went to the state fallen firefighters ceremony, and his name is now on the roster of active Oregon firefighters. 

It’s clear that both Amy and “the boys” enjoy their jobs, and that while they have fun, they know it’s serious work.  “Fire safety is only one portion of my job duties, but it is the most fun, exciting, rewarding thing that I do that helps keeps me energized and focused on the rest of my job duties,” Linder says.  “Code enforcement, getting things repaired and built correctly, for the safety of not only the people who live and work in the buildings but for our firefighters who have to work in those buildings . . . seeing the grief of families dealing with loss all helps me remember why I do what I do, so that other families don’t have to go through what I just saw.”

Get to know Cody and Casey, Official Fire Safety Dalmatians, on Facebook:,

at the Oregon Fallen Firefighters Memorial in Salem.  Photo: Amy LInder    

Cody at the Oregon Fallen Firefighters Memorial in Salem.  Photo: Amy LInder

Casey at the Oregon Fallen Law Enforcement Memorial in Salem.  Photo: Amy Linder 

Casey at the Oregon Fallen Law Enforcement Memorial in Salem.  Photo: Amy Linder 

Dogs Comfort Boston Bombing Victims


In an effort to provide comfort to those affected by the Boston Marathon bombings on April 15, 2013, five trained therapy Golden Retrievers were transported to the First Lutheran Church of Boston, just a few blocks from where the tragedy occurred. The dogs were sponsored by Lutheran Church Charities who has an entire team of dogs at the ready to respond to crisis situations.

A glance at their website,, reveals 18 dogs in the LCC K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry, with more than a dozen additional affiliate members in states including Michigan, Illinois, Indiana and Nebraska and several pictures of comfort dogs in training. Thumbnail photos depict smiling canine faces along with their names (Addie, Magic, Miriam, etc.) and a link to their own Facebook pages. When the dogs are not responding to crisis situations, they are busy visiting schools, nursing homes, hospitals and attending awareness events.

Paving the way for returning veterans

PAVE dogs, Asher, Alicia and Jay

PAVE dogs, Asher, Alicia and Jay

The atmosphere at LexiDog Boutique and Social Club conveys a typical scene:  dogs happily playing together while their people relax and chat.  But this isn’t a typical doggie play date, as Michelle Nelson, CPDT-KA, notes the time on the clock and announces to the group that it’s time to get started.  People take hold of their dogs, some older, some still very much puppies, and form a semi-circle.  It’s time to get to work.

This evening is dedicated to furthering the training of the younger dogs for a special kind of service.  These working dogs will eventually be placed with veterans suffering from mental and/or physical disabilities they’ve sustained during their service.  The class is provided by Nelson as part of the organization, PAVE, Paws Assisting Veterans, founded in 2010 as a way to improve the lives of veterans returning from war. 

Nelson started the group based on family experiences.  “My son is in the Navy and recently returned from a year in Iraq.  Veterans have given so much for us that I decided to specialize in training service dogs for them.”

Lt. Nelson works with training a future service dog on how to work with people in wheelchairs.

Lt. Nelson works with training a future service dog on how to work with people in wheelchairs.

As a longtime trainer of service dogs, Nelson has seen transformations born from the bond that forms between people and the dogs who serve them.  Currently PAVE has seven puppies in training, with two dogs graduating this month.

The organization relies on puppy raisers to socialize the dogs, taking them to work, school, and daily errands.  PAVE board member Melissa Leto-Dixon says this type of socialization is essential.  “They have to work on training in crowds, since public access is important for a service dog.”

In the classroom, the puppies are working on walking past one another without getting distracted.  The sounds of clickers fill the room, along with calming reassurance and praise from their handlers. 

One of them, Bethany Andrews, has been training service dogs since 1998, primarily with Guide Dogs for the Blind.  Andrews is currently working with a PAVE puppy for the first time, and finds the training very comprehensive.  “For vets, mobility is often more of an issue than sight, so these dogs are learning to do things like open doors, drawers, and turn on light switches.”  

Navy Lieutenant Ken Nelson upon his return from Iraq with several PAVE dogs.  Lt. Nelson sponsored a service dog to support his comrades in arms.

Navy Lieutenant Ken Nelson upon his return from Iraq with several PAVE dogs.  Lt. Nelson sponsored a service dog to support his comrades in arms.

PAVE is funded entirely through donations and grants.  The average cost for raising and training each dog runs about $15,000, which includes veterinary care and other expenses, a cost PAVE does not pass on to service members, who receive a dog free of charge. 

Melissa Leto-Dixon, who comes from a family of military veterans, loves being part of this work.  “It’s such a simple way to give back,” she says.

To learn how to become a puppy raiser, or to donate time or resources to PAVE, visit

Photos ©Michelle Nelson

The newest resident on Sesame Street — a service dog


A new Muppet character named Brandeis will teach children about service animals on a new episode of Sesame Street airing Nov. 12 and 30 on PBS nationwide.  The episode summary explains that Brandeis, a yellow Lab, is trying to find a job when he meets series regular Gina and her service dog in-training, Hercules.  Brandeis decides he too wants to be a service dog, and after weeks of training is paired with Liliana, who is in a wheelchair.  Sesame Street consulted with the Canine Companions organization to create the special episode as an awareness campaign for service dogs. 

Veterans group needs puppy-raisers for future service dogs


Paws Assisting Veterans (PAVE) of Cornelius, OR is seeking volunteers to help raise puppies until they are old enough to begin advanced service dog training.  The PAVE website says, “Puppy raisers play an essential role in laying the groundwork for a successful and well-adapted service dog.”  Volunteers work with puppies for approximately 18 months, exposing them to a variety of people and environments.  The group teams service dogs with veterans who are suffering from mental or physical disabilities, and informs the public about the essential roles service dogs play in the lives of veterans.  Details