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Training dogs for service

  • Melissa Saari, founder of ColdSprings Healing Paws, and her 11-year-old daughter Shayla take some of their dogs for a walk at their New Ipswich home. Staff photo by Tim Goodwin—

  • With 10 dogs of her own and many more that she's training, Melissa Saari is always surrounded by her pooches. Staff photo by Tim Goodwin—

  • Melissa Saari, founder of ColdSprings Healing Paws, a nonprofit in New Ipswich, plays fetch with some of her dogs with the help of her children, Sebastian, 9, and Shayla, 11. Staff photo by Tim Goodwin—

  • It's never a dull moment at the Saari home thanks to ColdSprings Healing Paws, a nonprofit located in New Ipswich established by Melissa Saari. Staff photo by Tim Goodwin—

  • It's never a dull moment at the Saari home thanks to ColdSprings Healing Paws, a nonprofit located in New Ipswich established by Melissa Saari. Staff photo by Tim Goodwin—

  • Sebastian Saari, 9, and his service dog, Sprocket. Staff photo by Tim Goodwin—



Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Wednesday, September 12, 2018 6:13PM

Take the long drive down the dirt road to ColdSprings Healing Paws Foundation and you’ll soon be greeted with a symphony of barks and yelps.

The New Ipswich nonprofit established in January seemed like the natural next step for founder Melissa Saari. She had spent her entire adult life working with dogs, first as a veterinarian technician and trainer, and the last eight years full-time working with Labrador retrievers she has bred to become therapy and service dogs.

Saari has always been passionate about dogs. As a student at ConVal High School, Saari spent time going to Rivermead where she volunteered to walk an elderly couples dog. The woman had Alzheimer’s disease and never could remember Saari’s name, but would recognize her dog in even the most darkest moments of the disease. That’s where Saari first saw the power that a relationship between animals and people can have. And her life’s work has further strengthened her passion to create those bonds.

In 2004, Saari trained a dog for a woman suffering from Alzheimer’s who was physically active her entire life, but unable to leave her home without her family fearing that she wouldn’t remember how to get back. So Saari taught the dog to walk a loop and always end up in the same spot. It gave that woman her sense of freedom and her family piece of mind.

Over the years, Saari has trained dogs for people who suffer from hearing issues, autism and are paraplegic. She’s trained others to work with dementia patients, for hospice units and something that affected her immediate family, seizures.

For the first five years of her son Sebastian’s life, the Saaris spent countless days in the hospital. Sebastian, now 9, has epilepsy and in just one year, the family made 90 trips to the emergency room. As a young mom, she said, it was a helpless feeling when your child is having seizures a couple times a week – without any warning.

That’s why she gave up her career as a veterinarian technician and decided to devote her life to breeding and training dogs. It allowed her to be home for her young children and continue the work she loved to do.

“I was training and breeding dogs for 10 years before I had kids,” Saari said.

Growing up, Saari lived in a family that had just one dog and one cat. Things have changed quite a bit because she now owns 10 of her own Labradors to go along with other dogs that are still in her training program, as well as litters of puppies that she has about twice a year. At any given time, there could be more than two dozen dogs on her property – to go along with all the horses, the pot belly pig (which she trained like a dog), sheep and cats she has at the family farm.

Since she had trained dogs for seizure detection in the past, she knew that Sebastian would benefit from having his own. But it wasn’t until two years ago that Saari trained Sprocket for him.

“When he started showing interest in what I was doing,” Saari said. “And once I knew he would be able to handle a leash and give commands.”

While Saari points to a number of factors to Sebastian’s marked improvement (no trips to the emergency room in over a year) to his doctors and medication, Sprocket can sense when a seizure is coming – and up to an hour in advance.

“If she senses that he’s off, she comes and gets me and I can give him medicine before anything happens,” Saari said.

Since Saari spends anywhere from 25 to 30 hours per week training each dog, there’s only so many dogs she can possibly train – at least to the standard she has set for herself. But with a dozen or more puppies born each year, she has connected with a few organizations that also train therapy and service dogs with a like-minded approach. So out of each litter of labs, she keeps two to train for families/individuals through her nonprofit, sells two as pets (to help offset some of her costs) and the rest are given to places like Neads World Class Service Dogs, A.C.T.S. and Clear Paths for Veterans.

“I can only adequately train so many at a time, so I wanted them to go to places they’d get the training they need to assist people,” she said.

The process to pair a dog with a family or individual is not just simple as saying this chocolate Lab can go to this family. Saari actually has prospective people come and visit her when she doesn’t have a dog for them. It starts the process in the right way because they’re invested in it just as much as she is, she said. Two weeks ago, she had 40 people come to visit.

“I choose families who want to be involved and not just get a dog,” she said.

Then when it’s time to pair a dog, she has the people come weekly and it’s the puppies that actually choose the person. She keeps track of the interactions and which one of the pups is most in tune with the individual.

Once a dog is placed, it returns for training, up until it’s 2 years old, typically on a rotation of two weeks with her and two weeks with the family. It allows for the bond between the dog and owner to build, while giving continuity to the training regimen. Saari conducts temperament tests on the dogs to see what each one can handle and respond to, and it begins as early as when the puppies open their eye at two weeks old. And it must work, because since she began training therapy and service dogs in 2004, not a single dog has been brought back.

“They’re taught to learn from the second they can walk,” she said. “You have a dog that thinks and reacts, so you can mold them into whatever their job may be.”

In addition to all the training, Saari also visits schools around New Hampshire and beyond, teaching students the differences between therapy and service dogs, and what each one is used for. Service dogs are trained for a specific person, while therapy dogs can be used for helping kids with their reading or to visit hospitals, things of that nature.

“People have a lot of misinformation as to the difference between a therapy dog and a service dog,” Saari said.

So between her dogs, the ones she’s training and visits to families and schools, Saari is quite busy. But she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“A day spent with the dogs doesn’t feel like work for me,” she said. “It’s just what I do.”

Her 11-year-old daughter Shayla has also started following in her mom’s footsteps, training two therapy dogs on her own.

To offset the costs of her donating dogs to the other organizations and families, Saari will train any dog just to be an obedient pet. A lot of the Labs she sells as pets come back to her for training.

Now with the nonprofit established and up and running, Saari has some ideas for the future. Her goal would be to train and place 15 working dogs per year, but she knows that would mean finding more trainers than herself – and ones that share a similar mentality to the work.

It really comes down to finding the right dog for the right person, because she understands just how important that it as a mom of a child dealing with a serious condition.

“I know what it’s like to have a kid that struggles,” she said. “And this is really my outlet.”

On Sunday, the K9Cross 5K Trail Race was held in support of ColdSprings and with more than 45 registered runners – plus dogs – more than $1,700 was raised.

For more, visit coldspringshealingpaws.com.