Rescue dogs now top grads with jobs in service industry

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In these dark economic times, it's a relief to learn that at least some hard-working students are moving straight from graduation to immediate and steady employment in a booming industry.

Qualifications: Four legs, good communication skills, familiarity with the demands of the service sector, dogged determination -- and a big sloppy tongue.

On Sunday, Freedom Service Dogs held a graduation ceremony for a dozen former shelter mutts turned ace service dogs at the Englewood Civic Center. Although this is the second set of graduates for Freedom this year, the event brought out numerous trainers, volunteers, a couple of mayors and other dignitaries -- a sign of the growing demand for and interest in service dogs in these parts, even if they aren't pit bulls.

Sunday's grads are all rescues; at least one was relinquished by his former family because, they complained, the dog was "untrainable." All have been through extensive training (including many in the state's prison K-P program) and have mastered the skills necessary to aid their particular owners, who range from injured military vets to people with multiple sclerosis or cerebral palsy to kids battling other disabilities.

Their new companions assist with balance and mobility, picking up dropped objects, opening and closing doors and other tasks -- even, in some cases, monitoring for seizures. Through private and corporate donations, Freedom provides the invaluable canines at no cost to the owner.

The ceremony valedictorian merely whined a bit. The guest speaker, Tonya Waldschmidt, talked about how the dogs also had an impact on at-risk kids she supervised through a program called Pawsitive Connection, in which children with "underdeveloped social skills" and emotional or cognitive issues work with the dogs and learn how to care for them.

The dogs' handlers and trainers gave some background on each grad as they relinquished them -- an often-tearful moment, clearly, when you've seen your star pupil excel and then head out to do real work. But the best speech was short and sweet, from a boy named Tey, concerning Millie, Class of '10, Barker of Arts magna cum loudly.

"I love my dog," he said. "Thanks for making her a super dog."

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