Episode 100 – Nicole Meadowcroft

Nicole Meadowcroft with Custom Canines Service Dog Academy is a nonprofit organization located in Madison WI that raises, trains, and places service dogs with disabled individuals at no cost to the recipient. Their program is unique in that their dream is kept alive entirely by volunteers, and graciously accepts the expertise and support of countless individuals. Custom Canines is proud to serve a variety of disabled individuals, including those with mobility issues, veterans and civilians who suffer from PTSD, visually impaired individuals, and those with autism. “Welcome to the Professionals in Animal Rescue podcast, where our goal is to introduce you to amazing people helping animals and share how you can get involved with animal rescue.  This podcast is proudly sponsored by Doobert.com. Doobert is a free website designed to connect volunteers with rescues and shelters, and the only site that automates rescue relay transport.  Now, on with our show! 

While in high school, Nicole Meadowcroft, began to lose her eyesight to Retinitis Pigmentosa. This degenerative eye disease gave her time to reflect over all the things she would miss, when the pinhole, she currently sees through, finally dissolves. Nicole had considerable experience raising, training and showing German Shepherds, but she had not yet realized the independence and assistance a guide dog could provide to her personally. A brief demonstration was all it took, for her to realize that she both wanted to travel, with a canine partner herself and help other visually impaired individuals gain access to the gift of independence and confidence that a companion dog brings. Custom Canines was born out of this dream.

 Hey, Nicole. Thanks for coming on today. Well, thanks for having me on. I really appreciate it. Yeah, we’re really excited to have you. So tell us your story and kind of how you got to where you are now. Sure, I’m the president of Custom Canine Service Dog Academy. Our headquarters are based out of Madison, Wisconsin. And my journey with service dogs began, more on a personal level, I’ve lost my vision to retinitis pigmentosa. And when my vision was decreasing, I started searching for a guide dog. I had always been in love with dogs, and I think I’ve had a leash in my hand since I was two years old, working with my dad’s hunting dogs and things like that. So, I knew I wanted to travel with a guide dog companion, when my vision got to the point where I needed more assistance and desired that independence and that freedom. And once I experienced that, it just ignited my fire inside to help other people, who might walk in my shoes. And long story short. Even though I started mainly doing guide dog work for people and training visually impaired and blind individuals, how to gain independence, I realized that dogs can help in so many other ways.

 And so we’ve expanded our programs to help children with autism, people that have mobility issues, individuals who use wheelchairs. We have a couple clients that have had Parkinson’s disease. Diabetes. Um, and you know, most recently are working with our military veterans, first responders and civilians that suffer from post-traumatic stress. Wow. So something that just started from a need that you had yourself, has now blossomed into something that’s gone far beyond your passion. Correct. It’s incredible. And just being able to have just a small part, even in helping somebody enhance their life and getting back to their sense of normal or giving them, you know, a greater sense of independence from where they were before they had a dog, is, that is our is our paycheck. And our organization has just grown exponentially. And we still remain an all-volunteer organization, which I feel is just fantastic. And a lot of people ask, how can you work so many hours a week and not get paid? But there’s no better paycheck than changing a life. Yeah, that’s what it comes down to.

 Absolutely. Now what year did you found Custom Canines in? Um, Custom Canines was actually founded in 2009, by a couple of ladies, and it used to be called Second Chance Service Dogs. So interestingly, the concept initially was that they would take rescue dogs or shelter dogs, rehabilitate them and then place them out as service dogs for disabled individuals. I had started another nonprofit organization prior to that, that just dealt with guide dogs. Um, but when I wanted to expand my personal mission, to help other people, they asked, Second Chance, asked me to join their board. And so, January of 2011 is when I joined the board as the president, and we restructured and became Custom Canines. And it’s just grown ever since. And to date, we have 134 teams certified, that are all working together. So it’s really awesome. That is really cool.

 Now, did you have a lot of experience with dogs? I mean, I know you said you had a leash on your hand since you were a small child, but did you have any background in doing this? Um, I didn’t at the time. Um, I grew up with, I always had a love affair with dogs. Rin Tin Tin and Lassie. All of, you know, the famous dogs you watched on TV. But I’ve always been obsessed with dogs. Um, and my dad had hunting dogs. So when I was growing up, I, you know, take the hunting dogs and make them do obstacles and set up little agility things and just started doing obedience. And, um, when I was in high school, I worked for a veterinary clinic in DeForest, Wisconsin, and really is where I got my feet wet is, you know, a trainer for pet dogs. So I got some experience learning how to teach other people, how to teach their dogs to do basic obedience and have good house manners. And I really didn’t get into the service dog or guide dog initiative until I was personally affected by blindness.

 And, um, I had reached out to a blind individual, that I had met, that had a German Shepherd, one of my favorite breeds. And he said that he, you know, he wanted to show me what his dog could do. And he had gotten his dog from, um, a reputable guide dog school. And I went out there and at this time, I had already been professionally training dogs for individuals who had pet dogs, but also at the same time, I was doing Schultz training with my German shepherds and competing. Um, um, doing competitive obedience with my own dogs and doing obedience trials and things like that. So when I went and witnessed what this guide dog could do for this blind individual, I’m like, I can do that. I could make my dog stop at curbs and avoid obstacles. You know, that seems so easy to me, after all this competitive obedience and dog trial stuff I was doing. So that’s how I got my feet wet. Little did I know, how much work actually goes into training a guide dog and the safety issues involved with it and things. So it definitely was a learning process, but, um,  I’m very persistent. And called a lot, called a lot of people, and a lot of schools and, um, ended up meeting quite a few professionals, in the guide dog industry, who mentored me along with my, um, my initiative to train guide dogs, and it’s just blossomed from there. That’s really cool.

 So maybe some perspective I mean, how many hours? How hard is it? How long does it take to train a guide dog? Um, for a guide dog specifically, um, it takes about 18 months to two years. Sometimes a little bit longer, to actually train the dog to be an effective guide dog. Um, it takes about three years to apprentice, to even become a guide dog mobility instructor. So it takes a trainer three years to learn just how to train a guide dog and work with blind individuals and blind clients. And guide work is probably the most difficult, mentally challenged, work that a dog can do. It’s very physical because they’re pulling into that harness so that the blind individual can get feedback, you know, through the harness handle. Um, and those dogs are making life and death choices for you, sometimes. When it’s safe to cross the street, when it’s not, um, so that’s actually the hardest job, to teach a dog, is the guide work training. Um, the service dog training, it’s a lot more task work. You’re telling the dog what to do and when to do it, usually depending on what the dog’s job is, so they’re not having to make those great decisions, you know? Is it safe to cross? Is that not? Did this person? You know, this handler make a bad decision? Um, we call that Intelligent Disobedience when we’re talking about guide dogs. So if I’m with my guide dog, Snickers and I”m at an intersection and I tell him forward, because I feel like it’s safe to cross and it’s not, he’s gonna disobey me and keep me on that curb and not play in the street, because it’s not good. Yeah, exactly. That’s got to be something that’s really hard to train a dog to do. It is, it’s, um it’s just real consistency. And you need a very sound and solid dog, to be able to do that, um, and a dog that can really handle some pressure because it’s a lot to put on an animal. Yeah.

 Now one of the things I think is really cool about your story is that I mean, for yourself, the guide dog and the visually impaired, was the angle for you, but then you recognize there is a need in dogs and helping out in other situations, as well. There was, um, definitely. I had one of my volunteers that was helping me raise our guide dog puppies. She was introduced to a mother, who had an autistic child, and that was all it took for me. It was just to meet that family and, and meet this child who had autism and, um, listening to what their needs were and figuring out what that dog could do to help this child get through life easier. Um, and compared to guide dog training, the other service dog training, you know, from a professional dog training standpoint, um, it seems easier. It’s not. But it’s not the life and death thing that the guide dogs are having to do, but the dogs that help children with autism, a lot of those children are, they call them runners. They’ll just take off, and we don’t know why they do that, but, um, it’s a safety issue for the parents. And then what happens is, the families end up not going anywhere because they’re afraid their child’s gonna take off or to have a meltdown in public. And the dogs assist with that, Um, not only being a weighted blanket for those children, you know, doing that compression therapy. Um, but it’s something consistent, and they’re in an environment that’s really not consistent. And that’s where a lot of autistic children have issues. Um, and then we also teach the dogs to be tethered to those children, so that the child will wear either a harness or a waist belt that’s connected to the dog’s vest. And then the mother or father or caregiver or a teacher has the leash and is in control of that dog at all times, and kind of initiates what the dog’s doing with the artistic child. Very interesting concept. Yeah, it is.

 And I’m guessing you’ve learned a lot over the years of doing this. Of course, yeah, you’re always learning. And I think that’s true for any profession. But you’re always learning, and the one thing I love about Custom Canines is, we can custom train these dogs to meet the needs of each individual. Because every person is different, every dog is different, and really, the reason we’re so successful is because we’re able to take that specific dog, and the specific client and make that perfect match. And that’s where all the magic happens. Is matching the right dog to the right client. The right environment, the right lifestyle. Personality level, activity level, all of those things combined. Okay, now, I’m sure you interview the potential clients, but how do you go about finding the dogs and making that perfect match? 

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Sure. Our application process is quite extensive. Um, it’s a bit overwhelming sometimes for people. It’s about 24 pages long, but we need to make sure we get, you know, the background information We need to make sure that we’re making the right decisions or to see if a service dog is actually appropriate for this situation. A lot of times, people think a service dog will act like Lassie and go get the neighbor when you need help. Some, you know, I sometimes call it Lassie syndrome. People will call and say, Well, I want, you know, the dog to be able to start the washing machine. Tell me when it’s five o’clock, so I can take my medicine and things like that. And, um, as much as I’d love to say I can train a dog to do that, it’s just unrealistic to expect a dog to be able to do some of those functions. And sometimes to, um, you know when we’re looking at an application and an applicant or disabled individual, we want to make sure that dog’s enhancing to them and not a hindrance to them because it is a lot of work. Um, for instance, guide dogs you know, if you don’t use a guide dog, you’re using a white cane. When you get home, you can put the walking cane in the closet and you don’t have to think about it, until you leave the house, you know, the next day. Where the dog, you have to feed them, play with them, groom them, relieve them. You know, there’s vet care. There’s a, there’s a lot more, you know, involved with having a dog, as opposed to a cane or a wheelchair or another assistive device that a disabled, injured individual might have to use. Yeah, yeah, they’re a living being, a sentient being, right. Of course you got it. You got it. And sometimes people don’t realize that, when they’re applying for a service dog, Plus, it’s, it’s expensive to maintain a dog, too. The health care and, um, the dog food and things like that. Yeah.

 So now where do you find the dogs that you bring into the program? I’m sure you’ve got a particular criteria in the way that you go about this. Yes, we do. And we actually have two different programs within Custom Canines. Um, the first program that we have is our actual program dogs, that we obtain. We obtain the dogs as puppies. Um, at eight weeks old and we do work with several, very reputable breeders here in the Midwest and some in California. And then we also have our own small breeding program. Um, and the reason that we go through breeders, um or, you know, use our own small breeding program, is that we have the health history on the parents. We do the health clearances. Um, we do the health clearances on Mom and Dad. And what we’re trying to do is guarantee longevity, for the life of that working team. So, the concept of taking a shelter dog or a rescue dog is awesome, but the problem is we don’t have any of that health history on the dog. And then also too, we spend a lot of time training or doing behavior modification on the dog because they didn’t have the proper imprinting, or socialization that, you know, our baby puppies get, starting at eight weeks old. Um, so we do use breeders, and, um, we use a variety of different breeds of dogs, in our program. 

But then we also have our Owner Training Academy. And that was an initiative started by a lot of our military veterans, who were calling us up and saying, Hey, I have my own dog. He’s waking me up from nightmares. He’s an awesome dog. He’s really helping me. I don’t want to leave the house without him. How do I get him certified? Um, And so that’s when our Owner Training Academy developed. So we now work with disabled clients that own their own dogs. A lot of those dogs are shelter or rescue dogs. Um, but they start when they’re young through our program. And essentially we teach, you know, if you were to apply for Owner Training Academy and you had a substantiated medical disability, your dog would come in and we put it through an extensive temperament evaluation. And if we felt that the dog had the right temperament to be out in public, but also had the aptitude to do the service dog task work that the client needed, then we enroll them into our curriculum, and then they go through the same training that our program dogs do. Except, you know, you own your own dog. We don’t own the dog. We don’t. You know, we don’t have to pay for the dog. That’s all on the owner. Sure. So it’s, it’s great. We’re kind of hitting all aspects here, with all the programs that we’re offering. Yeah, I think that’s really cool that you’re not just saying. Hey, you have to use our dogs that we trained. You’re actually, you developed a path now, that people can come to you and say, Look, my dog is great. And like you said, they just need a little bit more education and training for us to work together. Yeah. Yep. They just need this, the task work and, um, be able to do what it is they need to do, to pass our public access test and be a legitimate service dog.

 You know, it’s very important, especially nowadays, with all of the fake service dogs out there and the people going out there buying, um, a service dog vest online and buying a fake registration card. And you know, you have the dogs out there that are not service dogs. But people are pretending they are, and it’s becoming very difficult for legitimate clients. Because now you have people questioning, Well, is it a real dog? Is it a real service dog? Or is that not? Um, you’re seeing that even with the airline industry, too. Now, they’re getting a lot more, um, there are a lot more scrutinizing when you’re, when you’re flying with an animal. Yeah, just give them some emotional support animals, like peacocks, that people have tried to bring on flights. It’s really kind of, I’ve heard of an emotional support skunk that somebody, Okay, walking down the sidewalk with a little harness on and, you know, I’m, I’m sure it gives people emotional support, but, um.

A big initiative with Custom Canines too is educating the general public on what the difference is between a therapy dog, an emotional support animal and a service dog. So therapy dogs are dogs that, you know, individuals own. They go through a program such as, um, Dogs on Call here in Madison, Wisconsin, has a great program, where they go through Delta society, and then they’re invited into hospitals or schools so that the dog can come in and make other people feel better. The dogs aren’t trained to do a specific task, work for anyone in particular with a disability. They’re just there to comfort people. Emotional support animals, if your doctor prescribed you to have an emotional support animal. Essentially, what that does is gives you housing rights, if you’re renting somewhere, to have an emotional support animal without having to pay a pet fee or a pet deposit or if they had a no pet policy, you can get around some of those, um, stipulations if you have a prescription, um, from a doctor to have an emotional support animal. Unfortunately, there’s no one else there that regulates any of the training of those animals, so they do not have public access. So a lot of people are confused about that. Um, the service dogs that we train, our task train to mitigate someone’s disability. So depending on what the disability is, the dogs are trained to do a minimum of three actual tasks that assist them with their medical issue, whatever that might be. Um, and that’s what gives those dogs public access. Um, because they are actually assisting with, you know, something medical for that specific individual. Yeah, and I love the fact that one of your goals is to educate people. I mean, I was looking at your website, and you’ve got quite a lot of extensive information, in your frequently asked questions area, just explaining to people what their rights are with related to service dogs, as well. Correct? Correct. There’s a lot to learn, and legislation is going to be changing. It’s just, um, making it more clear. I think the line’s been blurred a little bit, Um, as far as what a therapy, service, dog and emotional support animal is. And as an organization, you know, we have to advocate and educate, and that’s a big part of our job. And we also teach our clients the same thing because they’re the, they’re the ones out there in public talking to people. And they also help educate on what their rights are and, what, what a service dog is and. Sure. They’re the ones representing it. You got it. You got it.

Sounds like you’ve got a lot of stuff going on. I mean, what does the average week look like for you? Oh, my goodness. Quite busy. We had a facility donated to us. Um, in March of 2017. So beyond the placements and all the training that we’re doing with our clients and dogs and puppy raisers and volunteers. We’re also renovating our facilities so that we have more space. It’s just under 8000 square feet, and it’s a wonderful, um, it’s just an awesome place for our veterans and our clients to come and train with their dogs and, um, have a safe place, especially for, for military veterans to come in and train. Um, so we’ve been really busy with our facility getting that up and running. Um, we also have a Southern California branch, um, near the Palm Springs area. Our director of training is a Vietnam veteran. I also trained guide dogs for over 45 years and retired from a guide dog school out there. And now he volunteers for us full time, is our director of training and works with a lot of our military veterans in the Southern California area. So we’re quite busy. Yeah, definitely. Yeah. We have 44 dogs in training in our program, within our program right now. Plus, we’re working with approximately 24 owner trainers at this time. So pretty full, pretty full dance card right now. It is, but it’s amazing, And that’s our paycheck, though. I mean, it definitely takes a village to do what we’re doing. And the heart honor logo stands for a lot because it takes a lot of heart and love and dedication to do this for other people. And, um, we could not do this without our volunteers and our volunteer puppy raisers. They take our puppies in at eight weeks old, and I love them and care for them and take them all over the community and get them socialized so that they can be a life-enhancing partner for somebody down the road. Yeah, no, that’s really cool. And it is such amazing work that you’re doing. I mean, it’s just really cool to hear about all the different things that dogs are able to do, and the way that you’ve pivoted your program over the years to support different needs that people bring to is just really cool. It is. It is and that is what Custom Canines is all about. I’ve always been that person that won’t shut a door on somebody if I can’t do it, I’ll figure it out. Either figure it out or find someone else that’s willing to help out, um, to do it. But it’s been, it’s been a great ride. And, um, it’s just been amazing that the smallest dog we’ve certified to date, has been a little Chihuahua named Oscar, Um, and the largest dog that we’ve certified is a big Newfoundland named Sam. So we’ve done everything, um, you know, a lot, a lot of different kinds of dogs. So even though they’re little dogs, they are still mighty and they can do a big job. Yeah, absolutely. Animals are amazing. Amazing creatures for sure.

 And then so, Nicole, I mean, as we’re kind of coming to the end here. Is there anything else you want to mention before we wrap things up? Um, just that we’re, you know, we are a nonprofit organization. We gift our dogs, free of charge, to disabled individuals. I think that’s important to note because there is a lot of, um, there, there are a lot of organizations out there that charge a lot of money for their dogs and sometimes aren’t as well trained as they need to be. Um, So I think that’s important to note. And we exist solely on donations from individuals and corporations and organizations that want to sponsor dogs, for our military veterans or other disabled clients. So if anyone out there is interested in volunteering, to be a puppy raiser, volunteering at our facility or donating a bag of dog food or donating financially, every little bit helps. Yeah, absolutely. And I know they can go to your website customcanines.org and find out more about all of that. You got it yep, and we have a wonderful volunteer, who’s doing awesome with our social media pages, on Facebook and Instagram. So people can start following some of our service dogs and the journeys that they’re going on and seeing some of the successes with our clients. And it’s just awesome. Yeah, that’s just fascinating. I definitely agree. I really appreciate you coming on and sharing your story and from something that happened to you. You’ve turned this into a lifelong passion, that’s helping both animals and people, and that’s just amazing to me. So I really appreciate you coming on today, Nicole. It was really great to talk to you. Well, thank you so much. Any time. I’d love to follow up with you down the road. Once our facility is totally up and running and, um, give you an update, it will be amazing. That would be great. Thank you so much, Nicole. You’re welcome. Thank you.

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