It's hard to miss the very tall blonde woman leading an energetic labradoodle puppy down the aisles of the Woodstock New Seasons store. The dog, Vera, wears a green vest that foreshadows her future. The woman, Micaela Kennedy, will spend two years transforming that excited puppy into a steadfast service dog.
Kennedy is a Certified Animal Behaviorist who lives in the Woodstock neighborhood, where she runs a business called "At Your Service Dogs". Kennedy trains dogs to serve people with autism, diabetes, seizure disorders, mobility limitations, PTSD, and sometimes other conditions. She'll spend hundreds of hours working with each animal, starting when the pup is eight weeks old. Demand for these service dogs is so high that Kennedy estimates she receives 20 inquiry e-mails a day.
Her work with animals began in childhood. Kennedy would often sneak strays into her pet-free home, and she knew from a young age that she would have this kind of career. "I've wanted to be an ambassador for animals my whole life. And I've wanted to have an impact on the world, and help people," Kennedy explained, about her passion for training service dogs. "It makes complete sense to utilize this incredible, beautiful bond that humans and animals have."
Kennedy also works as lead trainer for the local nonprofit Autism Service Dogs of America (ASDA). Vera, the labradoodle, is part of that program. ASDA dogs live with volunteer "puppy raisers" who teach them basic commands. Meanwhile, Kennedy trains them in more advanced skills.
On January 5, seven of ASDA's future service dogs gathered in Tigard for a team training session. Kennedy stood at the front of the group, exuding both authority and kindness as she explained how to expose the young animals to new situations. Kennedy often cites the science behind her techniques, so she talked about how dogs reset from stress by shaking – the same shaking they do after a bath. She instructed everyone to watch for this behavior and reward it with a treat. "That teaches the dogs to help themselves get calm. That's a good thing."
Part of Kennedy's training process involves taking the dogs out to local businesses, farmers markets, parks, and museums. The public exposure teaches them to stay calm around other animals, loud noises, and unfamiliar people. Two of her favorite public training spots are Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden, and Sellwood Pet Supply. Kennedy sees these excursions as opportunities to develop good relationships with her community, too. "We're ambassadors, so the businesses will be learning to welcome and respect service dogs," she pointed out.
In these locations she also relishes opportunities to teach the public how to respond to service animals. She encourages people not to pet them, because someone with disability is going to rely on them. "The dog could get distracted and miss an opportunity to help their person. It actually could be life-saving support that they're offering. So it's dangerous," Kennedy explained.
ASDA dogs are trained to stay close to their person, and are often connected to children with autism via a short leash, as a safety precaution. "Keeping the dog tethered to a child keeps the kid from running away, getting lost, or getting injured," Kennedy said. ASDA dogs also learn to lie on top of their person in times of distress – a technique called Deep Pressure Therapy. Kennedy likens it to the calming effect humans feel from a weighted blanket, because the dog's heft and warmth help reduce feelings of anxiety or being overwhelmed.
Eventually, almost all of the dogs complete Kennedy's training program and move on. After the group event on January 5, ASDA held a graduation dinner for Tucker, a large but gentle golden retriever. The time had come to hand him over to his new person, Austin Andrew, a 21-year-old college student with autism. Attendees included trainers, puppy raisers, ASDA leadership, and the Andrew family. They gathered at a restaurant to share stories about Tucker, and other dogs brought up through the program. Afterward, everyone walked outside to pose for photos.
Those who'd helped get Tucker to this point formed a pack around him. Until this moment, they'd been his family. Tucker's fluffy golden tail wagged, while tears welled up in the humans' eyes. Although Tucker's "puppy raiser" couldn't attend, one of the volunteers pulled up FaceTime and held the phone in front of the dog, so the woman who had shared her home with him for several years could say goodbye from afar.
Then Kennedy squatted down and wrapped her arms under the 80-pound dog's barrel chest. "She's going to pick him up," someone in the crowd said. When Kennedy stood up to her full height, she was barely visible behind the big retriever. She gave Tucker a kiss on the head and held him there for a minute, saying nothing—at least, nothing anyone but the dog could hear. Then she gently lowered Tucker to the ground and handed the leash to Andrew.
Just a few weeks later, Holly Andrew is seeing her son building a better life with his new service dog. "Austin and Tucker are already in love with each other. They're creating a great bond and becoming a great team. It's pretty remarkable." she smiled. She added that Tucker eases her motherly worry, because she knows he will help her son feel safe in settings that would otherwise seem intimidating. The whole family agrees that college and a career are now real possibilities, thanks to Tucker.
Kennedy sees these positive outcomes all the time, but they still touch her. "It's like watching magic happen," she said of the moment when one of her service dogs begins working with a family. Letting go will always feel poignant, she said, but also incredibly rewarding.
"You get to know that you are fundamentally changing someone's life for the better."
To learn more about Kennedy's work with service dogs, go online –
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