NEWTOWN — The Exceptional Partner Service Dogs hosted a fundraising celebration show featuring Mutts Gone Nuts at Walnut Hill Community Church in Bethel.
The Exceptional Partner is a non-profit organization that gives teens and teachers in Newtown the chance to raise and train psychiatric service dogs for surrounding towns while also spreading compassion towards others and breaking the stigma of mental illness.
The show featured performing dogs jumping rope, playing frisbee and doing a variety of unusual tricks.
The show also featured Professor Johnson of Czechoslovakia, a world-class comedian performing antics such as acrobatics with a full glass of wine.
Mutts Gone Nuts, of Washington DC, hasa plethora of dogs on staff, including Chico, Hank, Sammie, Rusty, Charlie, Chuck Taylor, Paco, Rox Steady, Shorty McNerdy, Pixel, Prince and Geronimo.
Their human performers include Scott and Joan Houghton, who have been performing together since 1984. They created Mutts Gone Nuts in 2007 after fostering dogs and having incredibly positive experiences with trainers.
Samantha Valle joined the duo in 2014. She hasnot only become one of the world’s top trainers, she is also a spokesperson for animal rescue.
She and her rescue dog, Geronimo, hold the Guinness World Record for a dog jumping rope Double Dutch. They have appeared on The Late Show with Dave Letterman and The Steve Harvey Show. Sam’s double dutch dog video went viral and was played on the Ellen DeGeneres Show.
After the show, guests were able to talk to the handlers, ask questions about the dog’s job, ways to help, learn about volunteering and how to make donations.
Founder and Executive Director Abby Hill started the Exceptional Partner Service Dogs because she felt a two- to three-year wait for a service dog is too long.
She receives calls each week from people in need of these animals, and with each animal costing about $25,000, she relies on the community’s support.
“I continue to get calls every week from people needing a service dog,” she said. “That’s my main motivator, I don’t want people to wait for something as simple as a service dog.”
Ms. Hill is a certified professional dog trainer and dog behavior specialist with almost 20 years of experience.
She opened The Exceptional Pet in Newtown in 2000, where she and her staff train hundreds of dogs of all ages, breeds and circumstances in obedience and various dog sports.
She also provides private training, including for those who want their pet dogs to become therapy or service dogs.
In addition, she is head trainer at multiple animal rescues, an AKC Canine Good Citizen evaluator and a member of the National Association of Canine Scent Work.
Ms. Hill works with Kristen Alesevich and Lauren Wolfe, LPC, at The Exceptional Partner, along with other trainers, raisers and the dogs.
Ms. Alesevich, director and puppy trainer, began her journey with dogs in high school after working at a local kennel.
She began working at Guiding Eyes for the Blind and became the central state region coordinator, teaching classes for puppies.
She now volunteers for Guiding Eyes for the Blind while working toward her CPDT-KA and also is an AKC Canine Good Citizen Evaluator.
Ms. Wolfe is a mental health consultant who works with children and families, using cognitive behavioral therapy, play therapy, art therapy, internal family systems therapy, neurofeedback, emotional freedom technique and yoga to help children and teens with anxiety, social difficulties, Asperger’s disorder, ADHD, eating disorders, trauma and grief.
Some of the puppy raisers included Bridget Berechid, ascience teacher at Newtown High School; Jennifer Brown, French teacher at Newtown High School; Laura Feinstein, reading teacher at Sandy Hook School; Pia Ledina, library media specialist at Reed Intermediate School and Michelle McAloom, a stay-at-home mom.
The pups in training included Bella, Jake, Taco, Blue and Harry.
The dogs are trained in a variety of tasks, including helping with panic attacks by applying deep pressure which lowers blood pressure, helping with nightmares, getting people out of a crowd and much more.
“They can be trained to wake a person up at a certain time for medication,” said Ms. Hill. “Dogs are really intuitive; they really pick up on what’s going on.”
Among other requirements, parties interested in receiving a psychiatric therapy dog from The Exceptional Partner must be in therapy for at least a year, work with the dog for a minimum of two weeks and commit to monthly and yearly follow-ups.
Everyone at the organization is a volunteer and The Exceptional Partner runs completely on donations.
As supportive as the community has been, the Exceptional Partner is still seeking help from the community.
“The fundraiser will help us through for a few months, but we are looking for a grant writer, a fund raiser, puppy raisers while the puppies are young and still not housebroken and dog donations from breeders,” Ms. Hill said.
The organization raised around $8,000 at the Mutts Gone Nuts show.
“We also accept any donations, money, food and toys are all welcome,” she said, “but the real need is for physical help and funding.”
The organization is continuing its work with the Newtown Public School system with a select group of teens joining the new Teen Advocate program.
Teens will work with service dogs during the school day, providing training while learning leadership skills.
They will also learn how to promote mental health awareness and advocacy among teenagers.
Teen Advocates complete 12 hours of after-school training in both psychiatric service dog training and mental health awareness.
“We’re really excited about this program,” Ms. Hill said. “It’s all about getting to them before they need a service dog, and teaching them.”
The Exceptional Partner also hosts community events at schools and organizations where people can learn about the dogs and their training, meet the dogs and learn about how they can help people struggling with mental illness.
The organization is also finding more puppies, to keep the cycle going and to continue to have puppies graduate every year.