Some dogs just like to work.
NEADS offers breeding, raising, training, and placing service dogs.
Their canine campus is in Princeton and their Breeding Center is in Sterling.
NEADS relies on volunteers from towns in North Central Massachusetts including Leominster, Fitchburg, Lunenburg, Ashburnham, Westminster, Groton, Lancaster, and Shirley to be volunteer puppy raisers, or to work in the Canine Center and Breeding Center. Particularly, they are in desperate need of more local puppy raisers.
The service dog programs are open to anyone living in central Massachusetts or across the country.
Service dogs can be provided to children and adults with hearing loss or a physical disability, children with autism or other developmental disabilities, and veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. They also provide assistance dogs who work with professionals in the classroom, ministry, therapeutic, hospital, courthouse, and first responder settings.
Jed Carter is a veteran from Shirley who was matched with service dog Raffle in March 2021. “If I drop something, he is usually picking it up before I even give the command – that task helps so much with my back pain… Having Raffle in my life is a high point – it’s like having a permanent battle buddy,” he said.
NEADS trains labrador retrievers, who are natural followers, through the use of positive reinforcement and clear leadership. The behaviors taught are inherently fun for them, so the dogs learn to associate work like tugging on a rope or running to a sound with having a good time. Food is initially the primary reward in early training, eventually being replaced with other incentives such as being petted or a chance to play ball. Each positive experience influences their future behaviors, which ensures a happy working relationship for years with a client.
NEADS dogs are initially taught a list of core commands, and they follow a basic training
schedule throughout puppyhood, for about two years.
From birth to eight weeks, pups live in the Breeding Center; new experiences and exposures are emphasized such as different surfaces, noises, people, novel objects, body sensations, and more.
From around eight to 16 months of age, they learn basic obedience and training, with a strong emphasis on socialization. The puppy is placed with a volunteer full-time puppy raiser or will be in their Prison PUP Program, working with an inmate handler Monday through Friday and going home with a volunteer weekend puppy raiser.
At 16-18 months, dogs are ready for specialized and task training, which takes place in the Prison PUP Program or directly with a NEADS trainer, with volunteer weekend puppy raisers continuing socialization.
The Prison PUP Program began in 1998 and is currently in six prisons in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, including FMC Devens in Ayer, North Central Correctional Institution in Gardner, MCI Concord, and Northeastern Correctional Center in Concord.
There are between six to 12 puppies in every facility, with each prison administration deciding how many dogs it can house and raise comfortably, and a section of housing for the program where handlers are given single rooms to accommodate the inmate and puppy.
“Once a dog is nearing completion of the program and is matched with a specific client, the dog’s training is tailored to the client’s unique needs,” said Cathy Zemaitis, NEADS director of Development. Waiting until they’re nearing the end of their training gives them a broader range of disabilities to address to be able to be placed with the right client, except for hearing dogs, which are identified earlier to provide additional specialized training.
It costs NEADS approximately $45,000 to breed, raise, train, and match a service dog to mitigate one person’s permanent disability. Each NEADS client commits to support NEADS by raising a minimum of $8,000 for the organization — not in order to get a service dog, which they’ll get regardless, if they’re eligible.
“We believe it is important for our clients to have a vested interest in the organization, and it is this philosophy that allows us to continue to provide our unique and highly trained service dogs to the people who need them the most,” Zemaitis said.
Clients also receive significant training in what the dog can do for them, how to work with the dog at home and in public, public access rights for service dogs, canine medical care and first aid, and grooming.
Service dog teams — the pup and the client — are considered “graduated” from the program approximately six months after entering the client’s home, with formal in-person graduations taking place twice a year.
They’re helped by NEADS for the life of the dog by answering any questions the client might have about training, behavior, or health, with a required annual survey and meeting to make sure the dog maintains a healthy weight — critical for any working dog — and to address any emerging issues or questions.
Barry Esteves, a West Boylston veteran, didn’t leave his home for two years after his fourth deployment. Now, he and service dog Apollo go everywhere together, and Esteves said that Apollo “gave me my life back.”
If someone has a disability not served by NEADS, they recommend finding a program accredited by Assistance Dogs International (ADI), of which NEADS is a charter member.
NEADS is the original service dog program.
In 1976, Holliston Junior College students tested and confirmed that dogs can be trained to become “ears” for people who are deaf or with hearing loss. With seed money from Medfield Lions Club, the first hearing ear assistance dog program began. They added people with physical disabilities in 1986 when they discovered other ways pups could help people, and moved to West Boylston.
Now, NEADS has a training and administrative facility at 305 Redemption Rock Trail South in Princeton on twelve acres of land, with the goal of continuing to increase the number of service dogs placed.
The breeding center began with two whelping rooms in a small building on their Princeton campus, but NEADS quickly realized that a larger facility was needed for the growing program.
With no space in Princeton, they found a Sterling property that was large enough for a state-of-the-art-facility and close to their main campus, Zemaitis said.
At the center, labrador retrievers are specially bred for health, longevity, and the temperament for a NEADS Service Dog.
Although NEADS has its roots in working with rescues — in their earliest days, their dogs came from shelters — their graduation rate was only 20%, with only one out of every five dogs being matched with a client.
Switching to purpose-bred puppies from other service dog organizations increased their graduation rate, and their own breeding program allowed NEADS to be more independent and have better control over the dogs, which has resulted in most of the purpose-bred dogs being placed successfully with a client.
“NEADS values and respects the work that rescue organizations and shelters do on
behalf of pets who need homes … But, our primary mission is to be able to serve people with disabilities, and by focusing on purpose-bred dogs, we are able to do that at a much higher rate,” Zemaitis said.
NEADS has 45 employees across different departments like breeding and puppy development, head trainers, client services, and the Puppy Raiser Instructor team.
Everyone else is a volunteer, including 10 on their Board of Directors. Volunteers are welcomed in their Canine Center and Breeding Center, but Zemaitis said NEADS is in “critical need” of volunteer full-time puppy raisers in Worcester County to “open their homes to one of our amazing service dogs in training, looking after it 24/7 for 12 to 16 months” to “work on good manners, basic obedience, and critical socialization.”
Upcoming in-person informational sessions will take place at Leominster Public Library and other venues in the area.
“It is a life-changing experience that will also change someone else’s life,” Zemaitis said.
Individuals and businesses who don’t have time to volunteer can support NEADS through one-time or monthly financial donations, legacy giving, and contributing items on their wishlist for the Canine Center and Breeding Center. Local area organizations often hold fundraising events for NEADS, which is an integral part of NEADS being able to afford their work.
Supporters can also participate in fundraising efforts like Name A Puppy, the retail shop, and NEADS Day with the WooSox at Polar Park in Worcester on June 10.
For more information on volunteering, donating, or obtaining a service dog, go to neads.org.