Marana resident John Cieslinski is pretty happy with his dog, Pepper.
His happiness lies not simply in the fact that the rottweiler-German shepherd mix has a good disposition and is amazingly smart. It's because Pepper performs routine tasks for Cieslinski.
Pepper is a service dog, who along with Cieslinski went through a month-long training program operated by Top Dog in Tucson.
Cieslinski has multiple sclerosis and has a difficult time bending down to pick things up. Pepper does it for him. Cieslinski occasionally falls, but Pepper, a dog with a strong back and legs, supports him as he gets up.
"Pepper and I went through the training so he's specifically trained to do those kinds of things for me," Cieslinski said. "With my MS, I have a hard time bending, so if I drop my keys, he'll pick them up. He's also trained to pick up my cane when I need it."
Cieslinski said Pepper even is able to open the house door by himself to get in and out of the back yard.
"We learned to work together so if I fall, Pepper braces in a sitting position," Cieslinski pointed out. "I'm able to put my hand on his back above his stiffened front legs and we work together to get me up."
Top Dog, where Cieslinski and Pepper trained, is a non-profit organization that uses positive training methods to get dogs and people to work together as a team by understanding each other.
"We teach our students to try and appreciate how a dog thinks," said Lydia Kelley, one of Top Dog's founders and its training director. "We don't just teach them how to get their dogs to sit, we also teach canine behavior, body language, bonding, breed characteristics and pack relationships, which are all the different factors that make up a dog."
Kelley said Top Dog first determines if a dog's personality and temperament qualifies it as a service dog, such as making sure it behaves well around children, other dogs and in public spaces.
"If our clients don't have a dog, we'll work with them to get one," she said. "Then they come to class once a week on a Saturday morning where we teach them to understand their dog."
Beginners' classes last for 12 weeks, then the client and dog take a month off from formal training to work on what they learned.
"During the next class — intermediate — we perfect basic obedience and take the team out into public places under our supervision," Kelley said. "We teach them the skills that will allow the dog to make the person's life easier."
After another month off from training, the team must pass the Assistance Dogs International public access test, Kelley said.
"Passing the test gives us confidence that the dog is under control and can handle being in public," she said. "It means the dog and person are working as a team and the dog is doing things to help the owner in everyday life."
Top Dog has certified 99 teams so far, but the training is a difficult process where only half the teams who try for certification get it.
"A lot of issues might come up," said Kelley. "A person's health may deteriorate or a dog's temperament might change during the training."
Cieslinski is very pleased with finding a partner in Pepper.
"He travels with me everywhere," Cieslinski said. "We just came back from a trip to Chicago on United Airlines and everything was fine. When I go to a restaurant, Pepper generally lays under the table and most people don't even know he's there. I don't know what I'd do without him."
About Top Dog
Top Dog is a Tucson-based non-profit public charity that teaches people who have arthritis, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, spinal cord injuries and many other disabilities to train their own dogs to help them. Go to topdogusa.org