Training Dogs To Act Like People

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Susan Luehrs’ Fi-Do trains service dogs to turn on the lights, call for help and bring meds to humans unable to do so on their own


In this ultra-modern world where laser beams adjust people’s sight and hyperbaric chambers mend their bones, Susan Luehrs, founder of Hawaii Fi-Do, eschews technology in favor of a more natural way to heal people’s bodies: man’s best friend.

“There is documentation that people with service dogs don’t need as much medical assistance, need less care and don’t go to the doctor as much,” says Luehrs, who was formally trained at the Assistance Dog Institute in Santa Rosa, Calif. “Psychologically, they feel better and they don’t use as many meds.”

Several of her dogs are working on Kaua’i.

The idea of formally training dogs to aid the afflicted is a fairly new one. A pioneer in the field, Bonnie Bergin came up with the idea 20 years ago after watching guide dogs helping the blind and wondered why they could not assist people in other ways. Through her institute and its offshoots, like Hawaii Fi-Do, they are training dogs to open doors, turn on the lights, pull wheelchairs, use medical alert buttons and even fetch help if their owner becomes incapacitated.

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Luehrs founded the nonprofit Hawaii Fi-Do 12 years ago after having great success using dogs to aid in her previous profession as a special-ed teacher at Kahuku High School.

“We noticed the special-ed kids who just sat in the corner and no one talked to them usually, but when they were out with the dogs everyone would come talk to them, from the custodians to the football players,” says Luehrs.

The speech therapist at the school also noticed that, after having the dogs around, kids who were reticent to talk opened up and became much more engaged as a result of their interaction with the canines.

Feeding off these positive encounters, Luehrs approached the Lion’s Club to see if it would sponsor her to attend ADI, with the promise that she would come back with an organization to train dogs for the people of Hawaii.

The club agreed, and good to her word Luehrs has been training dogs on the North Shore ever since, with 50 fully trained dogs placed with needy families at no charge to them. The number may seem small, but when you realize that each dog takes a full two years to train at a cost of around $20,000, and she has just one employee, it’s pretty amazing.

“You have got to start out with good dogs,” says Luehrs, who relies on a staff of 25 volunteers to keep the organization going. “They have to have a good temperament, be healthy and really want to work with people. Unfortunately, the gene pool in Hawaii is really polluted.”

Addressing a good supply chain was her first priority, forcing her into the role of a breeder. She started out breeding Labradors, then began importing some Labradoodles from Australia.

Susan Luehrs teaches white Lab Kea to turn on a switch

“They work great because they are non-allergenic and non-shed dogs, which is important because people with special needs usually have a lot of issues along those lines,” says Luehrs.

She usually selects one puppy from each litter to enter the training program, one is donated to a special needs family and the rest are sold to help underwrite the cost of the program.

Once selected, the puppy goes to live with “puppy raisers,” which are selected families in the community that raise the pup with love and obedience training, then return it to Luehrs once it is ready to begin its work at Hawaii Fi-Do.

The program uses only positive reinforcement to train the dogs, but some of the training would seem unconventional to an outsider.

Tolerance for everything they might encounter in the outside world is important, so at a young age Luehrs surrounds them with everything your dog at home hates: vacuum cleaners, weed whackers, screaming babies, even cats.

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“On New Year’s Eve we take the puppies down to sit on the wall and let them experience all the fireworks while giving them treats,” says Luehrs. “Now the fireworks don’t even faze them, whereas the older dogs I have to shelter them and give them Benadryl.”

In the first 18 months of the program, all the dogs get the same training: learning to pick things up, turning on lights, hitting buttons – in all, they learn about 90 verbal commands. The final six months consist of specialty training custom-designed to the individual the dog is going to assist.

For example, they are about to place a dog with a Vietnam vet who has a hard time with his memory, so this dog has been trained so that, when a timer goes off, it fetches the basket that has the gentle-man’s medications in it.

These types of services are allowing people to live more independently, but the dog also provides comfort and companionship that many times special needs people don’t receive.

Luehrs trains Kea to push a button that opens doors for wheelchair access

While the comfort level should not be understated, Luehrs wanted to make sure that people understand the difference between a service dog and the “comfort dogs” that abound in purses these days.

“No longer are comfort dogs considered service dogs – they have to provide a skill,” says Luehrs. “The ADA has updated the law so that it no longer considers dogs that just make you feel good as service dogs. They have to be trained as well. The reason is public access; people want to bring their dogs into restaurants, and it only allows this for service dogs.”

Because of how new service dogs are to the community, the laws are yet to catch up. There are still no regulations on breed, size or age that a service dog must be, and bogus service vests and IDs abound on the Internet, hurting the reputation of legitimately trained dogs like Luehrs’.

“Our dogs earn their vest over two years of training,” she says. “The law unfortunately does not require the dogs to wear a vest or to have any ID, both of which we provide.”

But Luehrs holds out hope that laws will be changed, and perhaps that will add to the legitimacy of the services she is providing in the eyes of the insurance companies as well.

“We have looked into the HMOs, saying that dogs are adaptive technology, but this is new in the industry and getting funded from the insurance just hasn’t worked out yet,” says Luehrs.

If you would like to make a donation of your time or money, you can reach Hawaii Fi-Do at 808-638-0200 or online at

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