E254: Jennifer Rogers - PAALS and Assistance Dogs

PAALS founder Jennifer Rogers joined me to talk about how she got involved in assistance dog training and what PAALS seeks to do today. 


Melissa Breau: We all know the saying: "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade." Well, we'd like to invite you to do exactly that by joining us for the third annual Lemonade Conference on February 11, 12, and 13. Enjoy all of the awesomeness of a dog training conference from the comfort of your living room with leading experts from the worlds of dog sports and behavior. Head over to TheLemonadeConference.com to check out the schedule and buy your tickets today.

This is Melissa Breau and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports using only the most current and progressive training methods.

Today I have Jennifer Rogers, founding director of PAALS, here to talk about assistance dogs and her upcoming talk for The Lemonade Conference.

Hi Jen, welcome to the podcast!

Jennifer Rogers: Hi, thank you. It's nice to be here.

Melissa Breau: Nice to meet you. I'm excited to chat about all this stuff. To start us out, do you want to tell us a little about you, a little about any current pets, you have, what you're working on with them?

Jennifer Rogers: Right now I reside in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, which is on the coast. For those that are familiar with Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, I'm about half an hour south of that.

Right now I have two current pets. One was a former service dog in training named Harley, and because his hips didn't test high enough, he ended up becoming my permanent resident and family member here. He's a black Lab that right now does pet visiting. He's an ambassador for PAALS, so he helps me do demonstrations on what's possible to do with dogs, and he helps me with my presentation as well, when we get to the conference.

And then I have a younger, 1-year-old Golden Retriever who I was raising as a potential stud to breed for future service dogs. His temperament has proven that he would like to elect for a different job, so instead of every male dog's dream job, he gets to live the dream here. I'm still assessing what he might want to be when he grows up, besides just my companion, but I am looking at doing some work in crisis intervention and things like that, so there's probably more to come with that story.

I also have two cats, Jinja and Jobenta, and I always have a rotating guest dog from PAALS here and there as well.

Melissa Breau: That's awesome, and I love that he's not good at one thing, so you're working to figure out what he'll grow up to be.

Jennifer Rogers: Absolutely.

Melissa Breau: I'd love to talk a little more about you. How did you originally get into the dog world?

Jennifer Rogers: If we're talking personally, it was forced upon me by my family. Like most of us that are dog lovers, I guess, my parents were bringing home every furry critter, and dogs were the constant amongst all of them. They were treated like my family members, so it was a no-brainer that I was going to spend a lot of time with dogs.

As I started to get a little bit older, I realized that I really wanted to something with animals that also helped people, and so as I started to explore that field, I happened upon assistance dogs. In short, that's how it got me here, and it's been an incredible journey in-between that we can talk about more, if you like, later, with working with a lot of different animals along the way.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. I can't wait to hear all about it. As a stepping stone to that, have you always been on the positive training side of things? What got you started there?

Jennifer Rogers: I was always positive-minded when I approached animals, but I wasn't always influenced that way, and I think a lot of people can probably relate to that. What I mean by that, in growing up we had horses, and they certainly weren't clicker trained. No one had even thought about doing that back then. And so I was taught to do whatever was the traditional methods, and I hated it, honestly. I remember struggling with that as a young person.

With my dogs I never competed competitively as a younger person and did sports and things like that. I just enjoyed their company, and so I didn't have as much pressure there. But I certainly did basic training with them, and when I went to classes I started to feel the conflict of what people were telling me I needed to use for tools and equipment.

And so really my mission has been, now as an adult, to try to change that game in whatever areas I can influence, because I am a big fan and supporter of operant conditioning and reward-based training. I've seen the fruits of it, and it was always what my heart wanted to do, so yes, I am definitely in that wheelhouse, if you will.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. If you were to describe where you are now, your current training philosophy, how would you go about that? What would you say?

Jennifer Rogers: I'd like to think that my focus is really twofold: that I really want the animal to enjoy the process as much as possible, so I really focus a lot on the relationship, not just the ABC's of how to train things. That is a big shift for some folks. There are a lot of people who train purely positive and get what they want out of the relationship, but don't necessarily factor in what the dog is getting out of it from the dog's perspective.

So I like to think that over the years I've gathered a lot of tools. I've tried to stay open-minded, tried to understand all the different training techniques that are out there, but I really believe in making sure that I stay within my own belief system in morality and welfare for the animal, and I do a lot to try to educate others about that.

Melissa Breau: I like that. I think that really fits in with a lot of what we talk about at FDSA in terms of relationship and how much that can help in training. Probably the fun question: What led you to start PAALS? How did that whole thing come to be?

Jennifer Rogers: How much time do we have? I didn't ask how long we have for this podcast. I'll try to give you the summary. As I was growing up, I was like everybody else, trying to figure out what was I going to be when I grow up. My father was a scuba diver, so I spent a lot of time on the Jersey shore, following his bubbles, wondering what was going on down there.

My mother's mother, my nana, gave me an article about a marine mammals specialist that was from my hometown in New Jersey, so that sparked all the wildfires in me and I decided I was going to help people with disabilities with the work of marine mammals. I started to pursue that and did internships and volunteer work, was told by everyone I spoke to that I needed to get some practical experience, and that training animals would be the way to go.

I did an internship at the Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut while I was in college, and that eventually led to a job. I started off doing marine mammal training, and I transferred into exotic animal training in zoos, and so I got this array of experience, but all along the way I was still trying to figure out how to factor the human in.

Long story short, I came to realize that I could do programs, and I did. I created programs for people with disabilities in some of these places. I was always the one to sign up for Make A Wish kids, I always wanted to help people. In the end I realized that a lot of it came down to money. A lot of these, even if they were nonprofit facilities, their mission was not that.

The field for animal-assisted interventions with marine mammals never really evolved in the U.S. the way that I had hoped, and so I had to start exploring, "What's another way that I can help people and also help animals at the same time." As I started to really look at that, after following my "have to get paid" jobs of training, I realized I was okay at training, and I liked it a lot, and I loved exploring all of that, but I definitely wanted to connect the human element.

When I settled here in South Carolina permanently, my husband said, "It's time to take that leap now, and let's figure out what that looks like in realistic terms." We realized there was not an assistance dog program here based in South Carolina, so it was a service that was needed. I went to a school to learn some of the ins and outs of how to train dogs for service dogs, and how to start a program, and then I created PAALS … it's been almost sixteen years ago now. So been doing that ever since.

Melissa Breau: Share a little more about PAALS. What's the mission, what are your goals, what you're working to do?

Jennifer Rogers: PAALS stands for Palmetto Animal Assisted Life Services. It's a 501c3 charity based in South Carolina. We have dogs that we raise and train for service dogs and animal assisted interventions. During that time that we're raising and training them, we're integrating them into animal-assisted intervention programs.

Dogs that are growing up with us will learn how to go into a school and work with children, or help kids read that have disabilities. Some of our dogs might work with individuals with PTSD and therapy programs that we collaborate with clinicians for. In this process of trying to figure out what they want to be when they grow up, they're telling us all along the way, "I love this," or "I really hate this," and we really pay attention to those things.

It's really a nice mission that way, because we look at both sides of the coin: what is it that you're really good at, what are the things that you enjoy, and what are the things that are really needed in our community. So we have a wide variety of programs. Of course Covid has put some of those things on hold, but we're looking to come back strong this year. We're ready for that.

In the process of all of that, my program also became very involved in Assistance Dogs International. I've served on the board and I'm very active in a lot of committees that I facilitate or co-facilitate. And then I became a board member of Animal Assisted Intervention International, which we short as AAII. You'll hear a little bit about that during my conference presentation too.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. I have a question I know wasn't on my list of questions. It sounds like you work with a lot of different dogs. How many dogs are you working with at any given point?

Jennifer Rogers: Our program usually average around twenty-five on average, so it's not considered a large assistance dog program, and that's' because a lot of our focus is on individuals. We try to place dogs locally, mostly in the state of South Carolina and some surrounding areas, but we like to teach internationally. That's where the ADI and the AAII part of our mission comes into play. I spent a lot of time on those projects, sharing what we've done, trying to help other people do some similar programs, and collaborating.

Melissa Breau: I love that. I was poking around your website last night and was really impressed by some of the notes about how you place dogs and stuff like that. Do you want to talk about any of that?

Jennifer Rogers: I developed a fun system — at least I think so; some people agree, anyway — that's kind of like speed dating. I told you a little about the dog element, where the dogs are growing up and they're like, "This is what I might want to be when I grow up." But even if you want to work at a law firm, you don't necessarily want to work at any law firm. You want the right boss and you want the good colleagues and the right kind of environment.

That's where our waiting list of people who have applied for service dogs comes into play. While the dogs are being raised and trained, we have them come in for what I call speed dating. They might get ten or fifteen minutes with a dog, and we do it back-to-back. It's just a snapshot. It's certainly not the whole story. But we already have a lot of information about the dog. During those sessions initially we're getting a lot of information about the handler. We already know, in and out, pretty much everything you can know about the person on paper, but now we want to see, when you're actually with a dog, different types of energies, different type sizes, even things about how they look. Sometimes they'll have memories of old dogs that they've lost, and that's just too difficult for them. We try to take all of those things into consideration.

And sometimes it's the opposite of what they think they need, quite frankly. We joke about that. When the actual perfect dog for them comes around and we choose that placement for them, they'll often tell us, "I was really mad at you because I wanted so-and-so, but now I know you were right." So we pride ourselves on being the dog dating matching expertise, if you will. That's the fun part of it is when we get to see everything come together.

Of course at that point, once that dog is finished for that client, we individualize their plans. The client works with us, usually on average, three or sometimes even four weeks to fully get proficient at the dog's language, because I always tell them, "You've got to learn a whole new language now."

If you've had dogs before, that means you have to forget that language, because sometimes it works against you because we're focused on that relationship, because we can teach so many things and we can proof so many behaviors, but in the end, there are things that are going to happen in life that are unpredictable. If you're relying on that dog to potentially even save your life, then you better have an amazing relationship where they're going to work to figure it out. And we have seen that over and over again.

Melissa Breau: That's awesome. I just love hearing those kinds of stories of those inspirational dog heroes out there doing their thing.

Jennifer Rogers: It's funny, because people will contact me and say, "That was amazing what you taught the dog." I'm like, "That wasn't me. That was your relationship. I didn't tell the dog to do that. That's crazy." Sometimes we have to step back and go, "That's the amazing part of dogs. If you set them up to really care about people, and to just know some basic things that somebody needs, they can take it a lot further than we can."

Melissa Breau: I like that you're building that relationship so intentionally into part of that process. I imagine that that's such a critical part of having a successful service dog versus a dog that knows a lot of behaviors.

Jennifer Rogers: It is, especially when you're not working with just one dog at a time. We're still, like I said, a small to medium-size program, but that's still a lot of dogs for just a few instructors. So each one has a group that they have to find time to do individual bonding with, and individual assessments on. It takes a village. It really does. We have a ton of volunteers that help us as well.

Melissa Breau: That's awesome. How is this all going to fold you're your Lemonade Conference talk? Can you share a little bit more about what you'll cover in that talk and share some details about the conference?

Jennifer Rogers: I mentioned earlier about AAII, or Animal Assisted Intervention International. That's a whole umbrella in its own. It branched out of ADI, the need there for dogs that weren't being placed with people with disabilities directly, but being placed with people who wanted to help people.

For example, there might be a facility dog in an education setting. We have dogs that go out to teachers, and the teachers implement the dog into the curriculum. They're not just Oompa Loompa sitting in a corner somewhere that the kids like to pet. They're trained. They have actual behaviors that they have to perform and also adjust, especially because most of the time they're classrooms with kids with all different types of disabilities.

We have other dogs that are facility dogs that might work with a therapist, an occupational therapist or a physical therapist. So again, those are trained behaviors for those folks as well.

We have other dogs that work in our Department of Corrections, and they work alongside crisis intervention specialists. They're taught to go in and help debrief staff that have been through traumatic incidents there behind bars.

So there's this huge world that I think people are still pinpointing where dogs can help, and to me that's a really exciting piece of it. It's related to assistance dogs because certainly it's some of the same skills and whatnot, but it's a slightly different angle. It's really for people who want to do pet visiting, it's for people who want to professionally integrate them into counseling, there's just a whole giant bucket there.

What I was trying to do is give people a taste in this presentation, because there's too much to cover, honestly, in a short time frame. But just give people a taste of what are some of the expectations, the basic parameters, for each of those types of roles, and what are some of the fun things that you can teach as examples.

I don't believe that there's only one way to train things. Again, this is just an example when I do it. Sometimes people get caught up on, "Oh, I wouldn't do it that way." Great, do it another way. Just stay within that welfare expectation of the dog and be fair about it.

I had a lot of fun creating these activities and implementing some of them. Some of them we've used in our summer programs with campers to try out. We have a literacy reading camp that we use some of these in. And some of them were just for straight-up fun. The nice thing is if you never want to do anything as far as a professional goes, you can still do a lot of these activities for fun with your dog, some version of them.

Melissa Breau: Are there things that pet dog and sport dog handlers can take away from your work with assistance dogs to apply to their own training that may be helpful?

Jennifer Rogers: I believe so. I think one of the things I've always tried to do is explore things outside of my own field, which honestly I've done so many different things at this point, I'm not sure which we claim as my field. I guess assistance dogs and intervention right now, but I also still volunteer in the marine mammal world, and I used to do free-flight birds of prey shows. What's neat for me is I've had a lot of different experiences to draw from.

What I hope anyone watching any presentation or informational session would do is to open up their minds about what are the nuggets I can pull out of here. Sometimes it's "I never even thought about doing that. That simple little hand target she did there that was an a-ha moment for the dog," or "Oh my gosh, that fun activity that she's doing would be great to teach my dog focus."

There's so many different possibilities, depending on what the individual is really trying to work on with their dog that I think can be pulled out of this. And then of course if anyone's interested in actually doing intervention work or assistance dog work, straight up there's going to be some perfect examples of things that you would train and implement.

Melissa Breau: If listeners want to support PAALS in some way, are there ways that they can do that? How can they learn more about the organization?

Jennifer Rogers: Absolutely. Our website is pretty easy. It's just paals.org. When you go there, there's lots of different ways to connect with us. We have Facebook, we have Instagram, we have Twitter. We do all those things that everybody's doing right now.

Obviously we're a charity, so donating is a lovely thing, if anyone has the means and feels called to do so. But even just networking with us. We love collaborating with people.

Right now we have a trainer, an instructor, position open, so if anyone is interested in looking for work in our world, that would be a great thing to share as well.

Melissa Breau: That's awesome. That seems like a dream job for somebody.

Jennifer Rogers: I think so. It doesn't pay as well as for-profit trainers. I do have to do that disclaimer, because some people will get upset when they see the difference in salaries. But you get so much out of this. It really is something you have to feel called to do, because obviously for-profits do make more money than we do, but it's well worth what you give up in finances, if you're able to do it. It's a pretty special thing to be a part of to watch people's lives change all the time.

Melissa Breau: To round out our conversation, my last question for you here is if we were to drill some of this stuff down into one key piece of information you really want people to know or to understand, or to take away from what we talked about today, what would that be?

Jennifer Rogers: I think one thing I would say is that I think everyone's goal as a really good dog trainer is to keep increasing your training toolbox. I really believe in drawing from a lot of different sources to do that, but I also think it's equally important that people understand that it's not just about what you're getting from the dog.

So much of the focus of research and training techniques are about how to get what we want. I think we owe it to the dogs that we claim to love so much to find out what it is that they're getting out of it … or not.

That's, I guess, my takeaway. Even though that's not something I say necessarily in the presentation, I hope that's what it conveys to people is that the dogs are really loving what they're doing, that there's a good relationship there, that it's obvious to folks that these aren't dogs that are being asked to do something against their will, even though I know there are training scenarios where that's necessary. So that's really my hope is that they understand that there's a professionalism to the field that we're doing, and it's important to know about some of the standards that are in there, but it's also just another way to add to your training toolbox.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast, Jen.

Jennifer Rogers: Thanks for having me. It was fun.

Melissa Breau: And thank you to our listeners for tuning in! We'll be back next week. Don't miss it! If you haven't already, subscribe to our podcast in iTunes or the podcast app of your choice to have our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available.


Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in — and happy training!


Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training! 

E255: Megan Foster and Barbara Currier - "Training...
E253: Leslie McDevitt - "Have Some Latte..."

By accepting you will be accessing a service provided by a third-party external to https://www.fenzidogsportsacademy.com/