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Mesa company connects service dogs with those needing assistance

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Cole Ludwig’s closest friend is Bandit, a German shepherd who fetches tennis balls the 8-year-old pushes off his wheelchair and playfully takes off his owner’s socks when Cole’s mother isn’t looking – and even when she is.

When Bandit barks, as he is trained to do, Cole’s parents know they need to get to their son quickly. Suffering from cerebral palsy and epilepsy, Cole has silent seizures up to 10 times a week that can cause him to stop breathing.

Since the Queen Creek family got Bandit a little less than a year ago, Cole’s mother, Yvonne, said she’s finally been able to sleep through the night.

“For me, I was so afraid of him stopping breathing while having a seizure or something, so I’d go in to see if he’s still breathing,” Yvonne said. “Now I know Bandit is going to alert us because he has alerted us before.”

The Ludwig family purchased Bandit from Arizona Goldens LLC, a Mesa company that raises, trains and places service dogs nationwide with adults and children who have disabilities. In addition to medical and seizure alerts, the dogs can be trained to be guide dogs, hearing dogs and service dogs for those with autism, post-traumatic stress disorder and limited mobility.

Ellen Williams, a Tempe psychologist and representative on the Arizona Psychological Association Governing Council, said people show lower blood pressure, heart rates and stress hormones when they interact with dogs.

“Dogs are very soothing creatures,” Williams said. “Dogs are the closest thing to God because all they want is love – and food.”

Brian Daugherty, CEO and founder of Arizona Goldens, said the company breeds its own dogs but sometimes will look at outside breeders.

Once the puppies are born, many spend their first year and a half with contracted puppy handlers who help socialize them and get them to respond to basic commands. Some spend a week or two at a time with various volunteer puppy sitters who have the same responsibilities.

Other volunteers serve as puppy handlers who help out at training meetings that occur the first three Thursdays of the month.

The dogs undergo an examination to make sure they are healthy when they are 12 to 14 months of age. From there it’s a matter of connecting dog and client.

Clients pay $16,500 for a service dog as well additional costs for specific tasks a dog must perform or equipment it needs. Insurance coverage depends on the individual’s insurance company and disability, Daugherty said.

The Ludwigs didn’t have insurance cover any of the cost for Bandit, which was around $20,000. Yvonne Ludwig said her family raised the money in a little under year from cookie and salsa sales and a Girls Scout troop donation.

Jennifer Rose, a 22-year-old student at Chandler-Gilbert Community College and Mesa Community College, is seeking a dog from Arizona Goldens to help with epilepsy. She’s had to have someone with her 24 hours a day since she was diagnosed at age 19.

“It will give me back my independence in life and help me live a better life,” Rose said.

Her dog will cost $17,500 because it must have a vest to carry her medicines. In five months, she’s raised $1,000 of the $17,500 needed from online fundraisers and a website. Her mother, Debbie Rose, said her family is trying to get insurance coverage but has been unsuccessful so far.

Daugherty said dogs are matched based on a client’s personality, lifestyle and medical needs.

Once a dog is matched with a client, it begins specialized training for that disability. It takes approximately two years and between 1,500 and 3,000 hours to fully train the dog, he said.

Daugherty said autism service dogs can learn up to 50-60 commands and up to 200 tasks, whereas mobility service dogs learn up to 120 commands and up to 300 tasks. Tasks include opening doors, retrieving items, pulling wheelchairs and detecting seizure triggers.

“It’s not just, ‘I can train dogs. Let’s go place service dogs,’” he said. “It’s really complex.”

Daugherty also works with Chandler police and emergency personnel to help acclimate service dogs.

“We work a lot with that so they don’t get freaked out by the lights or the equipment,” he said.

Training continues with “boot camp,” when a dog is given to the client. Boot camp allows Daugherty to see if the dog needs additional training or adjustments on commands based on the client’s needs.

The client spends 40 to 50 hours studying the commands before the boot camp. During boot camp, the client spends 50-100 hours practicing the commands with the dog.

“We educate them on how the dog works, how it’s trained, how to keep up with training and how to adapt training in the future,” Daugherty said.

Yvonne Ludwig said Bandit’s training went well but required some adjustments as Cole and the dog began working together. Trained to stick its nose in a box to make a siren sound when Cole needs assistance, Bandit took to doing it also when Cole just wanted his parents’ attention.

“They have such a strong bond,” she said. “If Cole wants it, Bandit’s going to give it to him.”