Helping paws: Canines take on greater roles as service dogs


A soldier who sustained injuries on the right side of his body while serving in Iraq was faced with several complications when he returned home.

After only a few minutes in a grocery store, he would have an attack related to post-traumatic stress disorder. Storms and loud fireworks also had negative effects.

His injuries also prevented him from getting down on the floor to play with his young son.

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But once he was paired with an accredited dog from the Indiana Canine Assistant Network, his life changed.

The veteran was able to stay in the grocery store for more than an hour, he overcame the loud noises and, most importantly, he could get down on the floor with his son.

It’s all because his canine companion was by his side the whole time.

Dogs also can be trained to assist people with mobility or balance issues, diabetes, seizures and autism. They can be placed in rehabilitation facilities, court systems, shelters for those who have been abused or battered and special needs classrooms. And they can detect a person’s body expression when they are about to have a seizure.

Since forming in 2002, ICAN, the only accredited service dog training program in the state, has successfully placed more than 160 service dogs — primarily with Indiana residents.

Carefully screened incarcerated adults at three state correctional facilities help train the dogs for two years, and they work with the people receiving the dogs so they are comfortable around them.

It’s a win-win for the clients because they gain greater independence and an opportunity for a more enriched life by partnering with a service dog and offenders are able to return to their community better equipped to reintegrate with their families and obtain a job.

“It’s all about the rehab that the dogs can do,” said Denise “Dino” Sierp, a Seymour native who has been involved with the nonprofit organization since 2007 and now is its director of development and outreach.

“We are the best rehab program out there,” she said. “If they have one of us in every prison, our recidivism rate would drop dramatically because they are totally employable. Some handlers, when they get out, they may take a job in a dog industry, but their interest is maybe going back to school, or some handlers, this is all they are going to do the rest of their life is train dogs.”

One woman got out of prison and took a job as a waitress, and then a veterinarian hired her because of her experience working with dogs. She then was able to put herself through school and now is a paralegal and helps train dogs for ICAN on the weekends.

Another person became an accountant and now volunteers with ICAN.

A man who served six years in prison, went through rehabilitation and helped train a dog now serves as ICAN’s director of training.

“They all take different paths, but what their experience in our program allows them is to at least get back into society, be employable and they know how to do interviews because the whole process in this is teamwork, is interviewing,” Sierp said. “They interview our clients, and all of that communication and following a strict curriculum, it’s like a little school.”

The inmates and dogs are around each other 24/7, so they have to learn to live and work together.

“So when they get out and they get a job where there’s like 20 people, to them, it’s like nothing,” Sierp said. “They are not going to have an issue working with those people.”

ICAN was founded by Sally Irvin, a psychologist with a background in working with hospital patients with chronic diseases. She became fascinated by what a service animal could do for people, specifically those with disabilities.

She went to the western part of the United States to learn how to train dogs so she could start her own program in Indiana.

A couple of years later, she started her own program in a garage in the Indianapolis area. The program then moved to the Pendleton Juvenile Correctional Facility and later moved to three adult correctional facilities.

The organization became accredited by Assistance Dogs International and now has six full-time employees, more than 100 volunteers and around 50 dogs in training.

The Indiana organization follows the strict training guidelines established by the international group.

A handler must maintain a good standing within the prison to be able to work with dogs.

“They can either violate or have a infraction within the prison, and if it’s a C, they will get removed,” Sierp said. “If it’s lower than that, they get removed, but they can come back six months later. They can reapply, but there are some infractions where they can never reapply again.”

A dog may know up to 80 cues by the end of two years. For the final two weeks, clients attend training at the prison to learn from the inmate handler.

Dogs successfully making it all the way through the program attend a graduation ceremony inside the prison. The public is invited to attend.

Once the dogs are placed, the organization’s staff members do home visits with the clients to ensure everything is going well and the dog is staying healthy.

It takes more than $26,000 to train a service dog and provide lifetime support. The client pays $1,600, while ICAN relies on community partners, individuals and private foundations to help cover the rest of the cost.

After placement, the client takes care of buying food and paying veterinary bills.

On average, a dog is in service for 10 years, Sierp said.

Seventy people are on a waiting list to receive a dog, and the average wait is one to three years.

Sierp started a Top Dog Campaign, where people can go online to read about three dogs in training that are serving as “presidential candidates.” Each profile describes the dog’s platform, experience and campaign staff.

People are encouraged to cast their vote by making a donation, and they can learn about ICAN’s mission and the people it serves while exploring the website.

“The more money we raise, the more dogs we can train,” Sierp said.

An average of 20 dogs graduate from the program each year.

“We want to double that,” Sierp said. “We want to get it up to 40 a year, and we can only do it by increasing our budget.”

The budget currently is close to a half-million dollars, and Sierp said it’s probably going to increase.

She also raises money by conducting programs around the state, giving her a chance to educate the public about ICAN and allowing staff members and volunteers to have the dogs demonstrate what they can do.

Sierp, three volunteers and four dogs recently visited the Seymour Community Center for a program.

Amy Anderson Miller, the center’s activity director, said Sierp and one of her dogs recently accompanied a group of senior citizens on a bus trip to French Lick. That included Sierp’s parents, Clifford and Kathryn Sierp of Seymour.

“Denise and I talked the whole way to French Lick, and oh my gosh, I was just so thrilled hearing the information about (ICAN),” Miller said.

Since all of the center’s senior citizens couldn’t go on the trip, Miller invited Sierp to come to Seymour to conduct a program.

“I am fascinated by what these dogs are able to do. I learn something every time I talk to Denise about what they are able to train these dogs to do in terms of the aid,” she said.

“I can’t imagine how much this improves someone’s life to have a dog,” she said. “Being able to give them freedom of movement and the freedom of life again, it’s invaluable. It’s priceless, really, is what it is. I’m a dog lover anyway, but a cause like this, I think, is worth shouting from the rooftops.”

Theresa Childers of Seymour also was impressed with the program, especially seeing how dogs can detect when a person’s blood sugar is high or low or if they are about to have a seizure.

“It just amazes me what animals can be taught,” she said. “I’m just thankful that the patient has got something to help them.”

Sierp said she spent several years working in concert event production. But once she started volunteering with ICAN and worked her way onto the staff, she has found the perfect job for her.

“I love my job,” she said. “(Dogs) put you in the present, they really do. The inmates get you more present. … And with the clients, we literally see miracles.”

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For information about the Indiana Canine Assistant Network, visit

To learn about the Top Dog Campaign and make a donation, visit Voting ends Nov. 8.


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