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MALTATODAY 14 August 2022

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NEWS 9 maltatoday | SUNDAY • 14 AUGUST 2022 KARL AZZOPARDI YOU'VE definitely seen them out and about, wearing a red vest and fully focused on the job at hand: helping their handler. Dogs' reputation as man's best friend is certainly not without good reason. They can sniff out cash, narcotics and bombs; they guard properties, locate peo- ple from wreckages with their sense of smell, assist the police in catching criminals; and also help the visually impaired to navigate their daily lives. But the Malta Service Dogs Foundation is training a new breed of service dog... three ac- tually: autism support, diabetic alert and pet therapy. "The dogs provide peace of mind to their handlers. Imagine having a child who suffers from diabetes – having this kind of service dog gives that child's parents assurance that that child will be ok," says Malta Ser- vice Dogs Foundation founder Joseph Stafrace. "It also allows someone who suffers from anxiety to go out and socialise more, because they know that if they get an anxiety attack, the dog will be there to calm them down." Scientists believe a service dog is able to detect subtle chang- es in human behaviour, which help it in detecting low blood sugar levels and anxiety attacks. It can also detect when an au- tistic person has become over- whelmed and needs calming down. Despite these theories, more scientific studies have to be carried out to determine how dogs are able to detect these changes in human behaviour. But the dog's bond with its han- dler is also seen as a crucial fac- tor in detecting these changes. Dog-training specialist Robert Spiteri has been helping out the foundation by training service dogs for over 10 years. Spiteri says the majority of his time is spent with people rather than dogs. "If I train a dog, I am training it for someone, because what the dog does with me, it has to do it with the person who will even- tually get the dog. So, you need to teach that person on how to properly use the dog. The dog does not come in a box ready to work," he said. Choosing a puppy for service dog training is a rigorous and expensive process, according to Robert Spiteri. "We first car- ry out research on the parents, with temper and health being the two most important fac- tors." The different services require different temperaments. A di- abetic alert dog is more ener- getic, bubblier, while an autism support dog would be calmer. Specific breeds are preferred for service dogs, with a labrador and golden retriever mix being the "perfect" kind of dog. "You get the best of both worlds. The labrador is a bubbly and more energetic breed, which takes longer to mature. It is also very intelligent and loves people's company. The golden retriever is more relaxed than the labra- dor, but is more sensitive, and so is on the shy side sometimes," Spiteri said. Puppies are chosen using a simple set of tests, and from a litter of around seven puppies, only one or two are chosen. The puppy then goes to a puppy raiser for a year. "It doesn't mean we leave the dog there for a year without checking up. The person, who must be dedicated, is given in- structions, a schedule, and a feeding routine," Spiteri says. "The dog needs to be taken out on a daily basis; it needs to be socialised. We give them a full list of jobs they need to do. Sim- ple things which are important for any puppy." When the puppy is vaccinat- ed, it then starts a basic three- month obedience training pro- gramme, before it is neutered and a hip and elbow test is car- ried out. Once the dogs clear the required checks, they begin a period of service dog training, before they are given to a han- dler. Spiteri said the foundation, which is currently training up to six different service dogs, is still ill-equipped to carry out its services. The first issue lies in actually purchasing the pup- pies, with the foundation hav- ing to source them from local breeders. "We do sometimes buy pup- pies from other countries, but it is an expensive process. We are an NGO, and we are lim- ited. When you buy a puppy from a specific centre, there is a higher chance of success. For example, there is a centre in France which is only focused on breeding puppies – not train- ing, just breeding – but they cost between €4,000 to €6,000," he says. Spiteri also said that training facilities in Malta are quite lim- ited. "We have been active since 2013, and since then I have al- ways trained our puppies out- side… literally outside in public areas. To have a proper train- ing programme, you need the premises." But the foundation's calls for added funding have fallen on deaf ears. Looking ahead, Spi- teri and Stafrace hope the foun- dation will one day have its own breeding line of service dogs. "That is the dream," Spiteri says. "Service dogs are more than pets and more than com- panions. The important work they do enhances independence for children and adults with physical, cognitive, and devel- opmental disabilities, while also improving the everyday lives of thousands of people across the globe." Those looking to volunteer or donate to the NGO can contact the Service Dogs Malta Foun- dation on Facebook Man's best friend. But also the first to assist their handlers with anxiety problems, diabetes and even therapy: service dogs A new kind of breed: the canines helping humans cope Dog-training specialist Robert Spiteri

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