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Training to serve

For Paul and Kiett Takkunen of Lake Nebagamon, education is a passion. 

The Superior native and his wife taught for a combined 65 years, and their work isn’t over yet.

The couple’s newest student, Joey, is on the path to a life of service. With his cuddly nature, need to retrieve and big brown eyes, this 6-month-old is learning how to help others.

The chocolate Labrador is the fourth service dog the couple has trained through the Madison-based nonprofit Custom Canines Service Dog Academy.

He’s been spotted around the area wearing a bright red vest proclaiming him a “service dog in training.”

“His first dinner outing was at Twin Gables,” said Kiett Takkunen. The pup helped celebrate Thirsty Pagan’s ninth anniversary and spent a morning last week sitting calmly under a table at the Lake Nebagamon Auditorium.

“It’s so fun to take them out in public,” Takkunen said. “These dogs need to be experienced and exposed.”

That socialization is integral to the work of these trainers.

“The whole foundation, why it works, is people like Paul and Kiett take and expose them to all different environments,” said Nicole Meadowcroft, president of Custom Canines. That way the dogs can do the jobs they’re been trained to do without distractions.

“They help these dogs become little heroes,” Meadowcroft said.

The Takkunens have brought their students to school, work, the mall, movies, football games and even Epcot Center.

Takkunen said she is amazed at the change that comes over a service dog when they slip into that red vest.

“With that vest on, they have a purpose,” she said.

When these volunteer trainers finish instilling the building blocks — including dozens of commands and specialized tasks — they let go, placing their student with the client.

“It’s not about us, it’s about the gift we’re giving,” Takkunen said. It’s thrilling for the couple to see these people get a gift that literally changes their life. But it hurts.

“Do I cry afterward?” Takkunen said. “I think the first dog, Image, I cried for two weeks.”

These volunteers are at the core of Custom Canines, which provides service dogs free of charge.

“You really have to have a huge heart,” Meadowcroft said, to “paw it forward.”

Since its inception in 2011, the nonprofit has placed 58 dogs. They are custom-trained to aid people with disabilities, including autism, post traumatic stress disorder and physical limitations.

The Takkunens learned about Custom Canines through a friend who volunteered for the organization. Saddened by the recent death of their own dog, they agreed to help. Meadowcroft paired them up with Image, a black Labrador the program president admits was challenging.

“She had a lot of energy, a lot of Labrador at first,” Meadowcroft said, not the typical type of dog they give to a first-timer. The Takkunens rose to the challenge, and Image was matched with a Madison lawyer who had physical disabilities. They taught Image to press buttons to open doors, pick up items the lawyer drops, walk alongside his wheelchair and much more.

When Falcon, a guide dog “washout” came along, Meadowcroft knew she wanted him with the Takkunens because of the way they handle dogs.

“This particular dog was more sensitive,” she said, and he needed their kind hearts.

The blocky black Labrador, trained to work with clients suffering from PTSD, would go on to military fame. He’s met the governor, visited the Pentagon and received recognition from a four-star general. Falcon was the first special service dog to work with the Wisconsin National Guard’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program.

“His presence alone is somewhat responsible for breaking down perceived barriers that has allowed some victims to come forward,” according to the Wisconsin National Guard’s 2013-2014 annual report on the program.

Falcon now flies around the state in a Blackhawk helicopter, Takkunen said, touching lives wherever he goes.

The couple’s third dog, Teddy, was also a former guide dog going through a career change. He was, Takkunen said, “too rascally” for that occupation. Instead, they trained the cuddly black Labrador to aid a former Madison police officer with PTSD.

Formerly residents of the Wisconsin Dells area, the Takkunens moved to Lake Nebagamon in April. They met Joey before they left and, two weeks after the move, Meadowcroft had convinced them to take on the pup.

Puppy raising, training and matching are addictive, the program president said, because it feels so right. Meadowcroft, who is visually impaired, relies on her own service dog, Snickers.

“For me personally, I have a hard time putting into words what having a service dog means to me, how it improves my life,” she said. For Custom Canines’ clients, Meadowcroft said, a service dog is “priceless.” Yet they don’t pay a penny. The program relies on volunteer trainers and donations. And it has a waiting list of 40.

“If we had funding, we could do a whole lot more,” Meadowcroft said, estimating each service dog costs about $5,000 to $12,000 to care for during training.

Custom Canines is also in the process of piloting a program allowing people with disabilities to train their own dogs for service work. For more information on Custom Canines, call 608-444-9555 or go to the website, www.customcanines.org. Local service organizations can contact Takkunen to set up a PowerPoint presentation on the program by emailing ktakkunen@smartlearningsystems.com.

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