Home Local News Local kennel raises, trains service dogs for veterans

Local kennel raises, trains service dogs for veterans

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With the energy only 5-month-old puppies possess Ginny — named for the character in the Harry Potter books and movies — bounds around the yard Thursday, pausing occasionally to sniff new and familiar smells, outside Ashley Johnson’s Grooming and Boarding north of Hobbs.

Dashing around with Zeus, an adult longhaired German shepherd, and Makenah Smith Baker, Johnson’s 11-year-old daughter, Ginny’s playfulness belies the seriousness of her ongoing training to become a service dog for a military veteran.

Ashley and her husband, Mark Johnson, raise several breeds of dogs at Southern Utopia Breeding and Kennel of Hobbs. Her first foray into helping others, though, was with her miniature horse, Ruby.

Before the pandemic, Ashley took Ruby to children’s hospitals and similar venues, starting around 2015. While dogs are the most common type, therapy animals of any kind help by providing comfort and affection to individuals in stressful situations.

“They have to have the right personality, the right temperament,” Ashley said. “That’s also included when we start looking at puppies to train them to be service animals. There is a difference between a service animal and a therapy animal.”

Service dogs, by contrast, provide more than emotional support, she said. They can perform a variety of duties or tasks the individual can’t do for themselves due to physical, medical or mental challenges, Ashley said.

Service dogs can assist with mobility and act as guides for the visually impaired. They can detect if a person with diabetes experiences a drop in their blood sugar or if someone is about to have a seizure. That last is particularly important to Ashley, who suffers from occasional seizures herself.

In November 2019, Ashley got sick. Doctors haven’t figured out to this day exactly what she had, but the illness left her susceptible to seizures, which her dog Ladybug, a cocker spaniel, could predict before they happened.

“That just blows me away,” Ashley said. “She was never trained to detect anything like that.”

Zeus also picked up the ability to detect Ashley’s pending seizures, just from being around Ladybug, Ashley said. Zeus once triggered to a pending seizure while she was driving, Ashley said. She was able to pull her car to the side of the road and park, potentially avoiding what could have been a serious accident.

“It’s been amazing to have these dogs in my life that are so close to me and able to help,” Ashley said. “I genuinely don’t go anywhere without a dog now.”

Since they started, the Johnson’s have trained and placed 16 dogs — 11 therapy dogs and five service dogs — with individuals and families across the country. One of those service dogs is in Annapolis, Md., with Meghan Cluney, who was diagnosed with a heart condition in March that can lead to fainting spells.

Benelli, a 6-month-old chocolate lab that started out with the Johnson’s, is partway through his training as an alert dog, learning to detect when Cluney’s blood pressure drops and her heartbeat increases. Cluney also works with the Wounded Warrior Program, the group Ashley is working with to place Ginny with a veteran in need.

The need for a service dog “depends on the person, I think,” Cluney said. “Wounded veterans, they risked their lives and lost their limbs. I believe anyone who has a disability should have a service dog.”

Ashley talked about another one of their service dogs that lives with a family in Texas, helping a girl with cerebral palsy. The dog assists the youth to walk without the use of her walker.

“The dog is a mobility service dog for her,” Ashley said. “Watching their story is amazing.”

The Johnson’s got involved with Wounded Warriors through a chance meeting with Meghan and her husband, Travis Cluney, while vacationing on the island of Jamaica. Learning the Johnson’s raised and trained service dogs, Meghan expressed interest and eventually told them about her work with Wounded Warriors.

“She contacted the Wounded Warriors Program and told them about our amazing dogs,” Ashley said. “They contacted us to see if we’d ever be interested in working with them.

“Of course, without a doubt, that would be one of the most wonderful things I think anybody could do,” she said. “To help these amazing men and women who’ve done so many things for our country who need the help.”

And now the Johnson’s need the community’s help. They’re soliciting donations to help pay training and transportation costs for Ginny. While Ashley isn’t completely sure a Maryland veteran — a double leg amputee — will want Ginny right now as he deals with the grief after the recent death of his last service dog, Ginny is definitely bound for a veteran who needs the companionship and assistance, Ashley said. Wounded Warrior Program staff is combing its lists for veterans who could benefit from Ginny and future service dogs from Southern Utopia Kennel.

“This whole process behind trying to help these people is not just me, it’s my husband Mark, my sister Amanda Johnson, all of us together have been able to make this happen,” she said. “It’s been a fun adventure.

“Every time I see one of my puppies leave, I always end up crying. But knowing they’re going to change someone’s life makes it a little easier.”

If someone is in need of a service dog or wishes to donate for Ginny, contact Johnson via social media at https://www.facebook.com/southernutopiakennel or call Southern Utopia Breeding and Kennel at 575-704-0952 or 575-964-2042.

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