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Abby, a rescued pit bull mix, has become the center of attention at Arlette Von Arsdale’s house in Brunswick Plantation.
Just a few weeks ago, Abby was homeless and awaiting adoption at the North Myrtle Beach, S.C., Animal Shelter.
That was before she and her potential were discovered by Rick Kaplan, president of Canine Angels, a nonprofit that rescues homeless dogs, finds willing foster parents like Von Arsdale, and provides training for the dogs to become service dogs for disabled veterans free of charge.
“She was at the shelter for about six months—why she didn’t get adopted, I don’t know,” Kaplan said during a recent visit to work with Abby at Von Arsdale’s house. “But she’s extremely intelligent, and Arlette is giving the best gift anybody can give—time, care, a home.”
It had been just one week since Kaplan had brought Abby to Von Arsdale, who heard about the Canine Angels program through the American Legion in Calabash.
“She’s at least 75 percent where she has to be,” Kaplan said of Abby’s progress to become a future service dog, thanks in no small part to Von Arsdale’s willingness and diligence in working with her new charge.
Abby, he said, already has good focus. She knows five or six commands, knows where her crate is and to “go home” to it when told to by Von Arsdale. She can “stay,” too.
“It’s not just ‘stay,’” Kaplan clarified. “It’s ‘stay until I say so.’ But she has a grip on it. She will wait for food, wait for a treat. She’s learning not to put her paws up on things, not to jump. She’s learning to heel on a leash and walk very quietly next to a person.”
Abby, he said, may have the potential to be a task dog.
MEET THE PACK
As Kaplan, the area’s own “dog whisperer,” introduced Abby to his own four-pack of service dogs—King, Alfie, Fred and Ginger—he said she’s learning how to be calm.
“You can have a pack, but you don’t have to be hysterical,” he said as Abby and King played in Von Arsdale’s living room.
“Dogs are like a schoolyard,” he said. “If you get out of hand, all of a sudden you have a riot.”
But Abby, he said, had a “nice tail wag,” and she wasn’t feeling threatened.
“The important thing is to become social, to meet another dog without becoming frightened and out of control,” he said.
Kaplan, who hopes to eventually scout out potential service dogs at Brunswick County Animal Shelter, said he looks for “temperament, personality, energy, and the ability to be calm and sweet,” as Abby was when she greeted golden retriever King, another service dog Kaplan is working with to aid a veteran in a wheelchair.
“Unfortunately, we can’t accept all dogs and veterans,” he said. “Everybody has to meet certain criteria in order for it to work.”
His first mission is saving dogs, something Kaplan has done his whole life as well as training dogs. The better behaved they are, the more commands they respond to, the more adoptable they are, he said.
“It was a natural jump to go from that to actually taking dogs to higher levels where they can literally become working service and companion dogs for disabled people, because you have dogs that are eager to work, perform, please…” he said, demonstrating how King was able to remove Kaplan’s jacket, pick up items and place them where Kaplan told him to.
“He can take off my shoes, take off my socks,” Kaplan said. “He carries anything and will pick up anything. If I drop something, he’ll pick it up and put it in my hand.”
Each dog is different, and each has its own special quality and talents, just like children, he said.
The goal of Canine Angels is to “find what each dog has to offer and see if we can extract as much as we can.”
Kaplan works with rescued dogs for about two weeks before they are approved for introduction into the program.
He’s looking for “intelligence, good nature, willing to learn, willingness to obey, and lack of alpha personality.”
If a dog is a natural alpha, meaning a leader, “they will fight you tooth-and-nail forever,” he said. “More than that, I’m looking for a dog who is completely non-aggressive and certainly has no vicious streak.”
Some dogs, he said, have that “because of things other people did. They’re casualties of the system” who might have been beaten, neglected, tied up in the sun all day or in the cage too long, causing nervousness and apprehension.
The problem isn’t that such dogs aren’t teachable, but that they “aren’t trustworthy,” Kaplan said. “I cannot put my time and effort into a dog that I can’t feel comfortable giving to somebody.”
The good news is Abby isn’t one of those. She had passed the first stage of the test, “and that is that she’s good material and she has the stuff to be something really special,” Kaplan said.
FOSTER PARENTS NEEDED
The important part of the Canine Angels program is what Von Arsdale is doing, the fostering part, he said.
“Arlette is one of those rare people who came forth to volunteer and say, ‘I will take a chance,’” Kaplan said. “She didn’t know Abby. She didn’t know what dog she was getting.”
But she wanted to do her part to help a dog and an American veteran “who needs help,” he said. “That is the heart of this, the people that will come forward to do this.”
Canine Angels, he said, needs more foster homes, which he visits once a week or more as necessary to ensure the dogs are progressing as they should.
“It’s a tough job,” Von Arsdale said as she tended to Abby. “If you think you’re going to get a dog just to play with it, forget it.”
“What Arlette is undertaking is not for everybody,” Kaplan said. “I have applications I can’t accept because I know they don’t have what it takes or the understanding of what it takes, that this is a full-time job. It’s a dedication to a schedule, to making the dogs become something, and it’s an amazing effort.”
HOW IT WORKS
Canine Angels is a 501(c)(3) corporation and pays all expenses of fostering, made possible through ongoing fundraising efforts. It’s always in need of foster homes, and is also seeking veterans who are interested in applying for a service dog. Just recently, Kaplan placed one service dog with a veteran in Shallotte.
“I would love people to step forward and say, ‘I’ll do this,’” Kaplan said of the foster program.
Volunteers receive training, curriculum, food, bowls, leashes, licenses.
“Anything you need gets paid for, but you have to give something a lot more valuable than money—your time and effort,” he said. “Arlette is a person who clearly understands that.”
The fostering period lasts from a minimum of two months to a maximum of six months.
“In that time, we learn about the dog’s capabilities,” Kaplan said. “We learn if it’s task-oriented, how loving they are, how obedient…”
The final step is matching a veteran to a dog on a basis of their personalities, energy level, lifestyle and temperament.
“This is harder to do than a marriage,” Kaplan said. “This is 24/7, so this really has to be precise.”
Veterans who wish to apply for a dog have to go through a process of personal interviews and an extensive written application.
“We don’t just give the dog to somebody—the veteran has to earn the dog,” he said.
Dogs are provided free of charge. But once a match is made and the veteran has passed a training course and is certified as a team with a dog, he or she has to have the capability of financially caring for and affording the dog at that point.
“We can’t do this forever,” Kaplan said, since Canine Angels is funded through private contributions and donations at an estimated cost of $2,500 to train and foster each dog.
Kaplan works with mental health professionals and doctors to ensure a veteran is mentally and physically capable of caring for a Canine Angels service dog. Once a veteran is accepted into the program, he provides housing for the veteran to take part in a two-to-four-week intensive training period to make sure a match is correct.
“If not, I have a lot of dogs that are available, and we’ll find one,” said Kaplan, who also oversees the transition period when a dog is turned over from a foster parent to a veteran and monitors their progress.
“My phone and email are open 24 hours a day,” he said. “There are always issues and problems” to be addressed and resolved.
“In the end, it’s a win-win-win-win situation,” Kaplan said. “The shelters win, the dogs win, trainers, foster parents and veterans win.
“Society wins in general.”