Katie Caplan’s golden retriever and Labrador mix, Kit, is more than her best friend.
She’s Caplan’s partner, the reason the State College resident has an independent life — and is now helping to provide the same for others.
In 2005, Caplan began having health problems, including seizures, but doctors could not identify a specific disorder, and therefore could not provide useful medication. In 2012, Caplan was diagnosed with mitochondrial cytopathy, a disorder that affects the energy-producing organelles of cells.
“It’s very rare and that’s the problem,” Caplan said. “No one knew how to help me, except for Kit. She didn’t need to know the name of my disorder, she didn’t need to know exactly what was going on, she just knew how to help.”
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Kit was the second Seeing Eye dog to be trained in the area, and Caplan began raising her before she had any health complications. But Kit flunked her advanced training and did not graduate from the Seeing Eye program.
“I was getting sick about the time Kit left for training, and we kind of think that she knew she needed to be home,” Caplan said. “They flunked her because they said she didn’t like to work, so they sent her home and she actually started alerting for my seizures and when my blood sugar was about to drop.”
Shortly after the realization that Kit had learned an invaluable skill on her own, Caplan got her certified through Service Dogs of America.
Kit is 101/2 years old now, and Caplan is planning for the future. She recently took in a black Labrador puppy, Dewey, to train for the Susquehanna Service Dogs program.
“I learned that Susquehanna Service Dogs helps you through the training process, and I thought it would be a good learning experience,” Caplan said. “Dewey will go back to Susquehanna Service Dogs, but I’m hoping I’ll learn a lot while training him. Then, when it comes time for me to need another dog, I’ll have the knowledge to be able to train it on my own.”
Caplan will raise and train Dewey for 18 months, then he will go back to the Susquehanna Service Dogs center in Grantville, near Harrisburg, for advanced training. This is not the end of Caplan’s involvement, however.
When the dog is matched with a person, Caplan will facilitate Dewey’s transition.
“With Susquehanna Service Dogs, they like the puppy raiser to keep in contact; they want you to come and meet the person who is taking the dog, explain the dog’s little quirks and share stories about when the dog was a puppy,” Caplan said.
“It makes for a much easier transition for the puppy raiser. I was very depressed when Kit went back for her formal training because she was my soul dog. You spend 24 hours a day with the dog and then, to have it taken away from you, it’s heartbreaking.”
Caplan is working with Dewey on the basics: sitting, heeling and potty training.
“So far, he’s actually already learned to pee on command,” Caplan said. “That’s a really big thing. The person will be going into the public eye and they need to know that the dog isn’t going to go to the bathroom in the middle of the mall or lift his leg on the wall of the school or something like that because that would destroy the relationship between the public and service dogs.”
In addition to helping with daily tasks, service dogs provide comfort and easier access to social connections. When Caplan first started classes at Penn State, she was in a wheelchair and noticed that other students would not approach her or sit near her.
“A lot of people with disabilities sort of get shunned by the public,” Caplan said. “So, you have an animal by your side to be your friend and to be a conversation starter.”
Kit opened up doors for Caplan socially and provided her the opportunity to earn a GED, move into her own apartment, attend Penn State and achieve a level of independence that otherwise would have been impossible.
Although the end result is rewarding, training a service dog is a lengthy, laborious process.
“It is very time-consuming, more than you could ever imagine,” said Kerry Wevodau, development director for Susquehanna Service Dogs. “An errand that used to take you 10 minutes will now take you 30 to 45 minutes with a dog. The dog becomes part of all the pieces of your life.”
For Caplan, her motivation to overcome the challenges of training Dewey is spurred by the desire to give the gift of independence to someone else.
“Originally, when I raised Kit, I was perfectly healthy; I just wanted to raise a puppy,” Caplan said. “Coming into raising Dewey, I have a lot more perspective in that I was housebound for four or five years because of my muscle disorder.
“But when Kit came back, she gave me a reason to feel hopeful. I just want to give that to somebody else because my life is completely different now.”