Changing Lives, One Service Dog at a Time
Sarah (Birman) Leighton
Sarah Leighton is the National Director of Training and Client Services with Canine Companions for Independence. In her current position, Sarah oversees the professional training and client services departments, working closely with fellow start on program quality and advocacy efforts for service dog users both at home and abroad.
I was 5 years old when I first started campaigning for a dog from my parents. Over a decade-long crusade, I applied every ounce of my creativity. I tried: fact-based arguments (many people think Polaris, the North Star, is the brightest star in the sky; but did you know it is really Sirius, the dog star?); a marketing campaign (photos of golden retrievers, everywhere—behind the ketchup, on the mirror, in their shoes. . .); the “door in the face” technique (I can’t have a pony? How about just a dog?); tantrums (ineffective); demonstrations of responsibility (volunteering for our local SPCA, walking the neighbors dog); and many, many other bids over the years.
In spite of my efforts, I had limited success swaying my parents—until I turned 15, and into my life bounded a little golden retriever puppy by the name of Biscuit. Over the ten years of her life, Biscuit taught me firsthand the incredible value of the human-canine bond. With her by my side, I laughed more readily and connected with other people with ease. She was my steady friend through some of the most trying moments of my life. So, when, as a senior in college, a career counselor asked me what brought me the greatest joy, my answer was immediate: time with my dog and volunteering at the SPCA.
Truthfully, I hadn’t considered work with dogs as a possible career. It seems absurd, in hindsight, but my focus at that time was on cognitive science, an emerging field that I found utterly fascinating. And yet, the reality of what constitutes a research position was not for me. I needed direct connection with people, to see the results of my work impacting the world in a more tangible way. Thankfully, the career counselor—to whom I owe a debt of gratitude—was able to connect the dots for me. As it turned out, my educational background in psychology and animal science, my direct experience with dogs, and even the customer service skills I had gained through
Changing Lives, One Service Dog at a Time 89 summer jobs catering, all provided me with the well-rounded experience necessary to start a career as a service dog instructor.
There are many types of service dogs in the world; Canine Companions specifically trains dogs to assist their handler with a disability with tasks such as picking up dropped items, pulling a manual wheelchair, and turning lights on and off. Our dogs are trained to alert a person who is d/Deaf to important sounds, provide calming pressure to a child with autism, or wake a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder from a nightmare—and so much more.
I absolutely loved my work as an instructor, so much so that I missed it on my days off. As an instructor, my job included not only training the dogs— smart, playful retriever breeds—in over 40 commands, but also ensuring they were comfortable around adaptive equipment and in many different environments. I provided demonstrations for campus visitors, worked with volunteer puppy raisers, and mentored apprentice instructors. I worked directly with our clients, conducting interviews with applicants and follow-up support for graduates, traveling to other states to meet with them in their communities. Best of all, I got to teach Team Training, a two-week class where students are matched with their new canine partner and learn to work together.
Since my promotion in 2016,1 no longer work as closely with our clients, but the work is no less meaningful. As a member of the executive leadership team. I direct our training and client services department, working closely with our staff and board of directors to elevate our program as one of the most innovative and best respected in the world. I participate on committees with our accrediting organization, Assistance Dogs International, and am an active advocate for service dog users worldwide.
I consider myself truly lucky to have landed my dream job; most days this job doesn’t even feel like work. Of course, there are challenges: dog training can be repetitive and physically tiring work, and all accredited service dog organizations are non-profits, meaning that pay is typically lower than it is in the for-profit sector (although great benefits can often help offset this significantly). For me, these challenges pale in comparison to the rewards: Every day I get to collaborate with other staff and volunteers who share my passion, and bear witness to the power of the human-canine connection to change lives. Service dogs give their handlers the gift of greater independence, and it’s an honor to be a part of that journey.
Those interested in a career as a service dog instructor should consider education and experience in the following areas: animal science, psychology, education, and, of course, work with individuals with disabilities. Its important to develop comfort both working directly with animals, and with people, including public speaking. To learn more about this job. I encourage you to look into service dog schools in your area and sign up for a tour or consider volunteering as a puppy raiser. This type of volunteering will not only give you direct experience with the incredible mission of these organizations, it has the potential to profoundly change somebody’s life. What greater gift can there be?