Episode 100 – Nicole Meadowcroft

Nicole Meadowcroft with Custom Canines Service Dog Academy is a nonprofit organization located in Madison WI that raises, trains, and places service dogs with disabled individuals at no cost to the recipient. Their program is unique in that their dream is kept alive entirely by volunteers, and graciously accepts the expertise and support of countless individuals. Custom Canines is proud to serve a variety of disabled individuals, including those with mobility issues, veterans and civilians who suffer from PTSD, visually impaired individuals, and those with autism.
Welcome to the professionals in animal rescue podcast where our goal is to introduce you to amazing people helping animals and share how you can get involved with animal rescue.  This podcast is proudly sponsored by Doobert.com. Doobert is a free website designed to connect volunteers with rescues and shelters, and the only site that automates rescue relay transport.  Now, on with our show! While in high school, Nicole Metal Craft began to lose her eyesight to retinitis pigmentosa. This degenerative eye disease gave her time to reflect over all the things she would miss when the pinhole she currently sees through finally dissolves. Nicole had considerable experience raising, training and showing German shepherds, but she had not yet realized the independence and assistance Ah, guide dog could provide to her personally, a brief demonstration was all it took for her to realize that she both wanted to travel with a canine partner herself and help other visually impaired individuals gain access to the gift of independence and confidence of companion. Dog brings custom canines was born out of the street. Hey, Nicole. Thanks for coming on today. Well, thanks for having me on. I really appreciate it. Yeah, we’re really excited to have you. So tell us your story and kind of how you got to where you are now. Sure, I’m the president of Custom Cannon Service Dog Academy. Our headquarters are based out of Madison, Wisconsin, and my journey with service dogs began more on a personal level, I I’ve lost my vision to retinitis pigmentosa, and when my vision was decreasing, I started searching for a guide. Dog had always been in love with dogs, and I think I’ve had a leash in my hand since I was two years old, working with my dad’s hunting dogs and things like that. So I knew I wanted to travel with a guide dog companion when my vision got to the point where I needed more assistance and desired that independence and that freedom. And in once I experienced that, it just ignited my fire inside to help other people who might walk in my shoes and long story short. Even though I started mainly doing guide dog work for people in training, visually impaired and blind individuals, how to gain independence, I realized that dogs can help in so many other ways, and so We’ve expanded our programs to help children with autism, people that have mobility issues, individuals who use wheelchairs. We have a couple clients that have had Parkinson’s disease. Diabetes. Um, and you know, most recently are working with our military veterans, first responders and civilians that suffer from post traumatic stress. Wow. So something that just started from ah Ni that you had yourself is now blossomed into something that’s gone far beyond your passion. Correct? It’s incredible. And just being able to have just a small part, even in helping somebody in hints their life and getting back to their sense of normal or giving them, you know, a greater sense of independence from where they were before they had a dog is that is our is our paycheck, and our organization has just grown exponentially. And we still remain in all volunteer organization, which I feel is just fantastic on a lot of lot of people ask how how can you work so many hours a week and not get paid? But there’s no better paycheck than changing a life. Yeah, that’s what it comes down to. Absolutely. Now what year did you found custom canines in, um custom canines was actually founded in 2009 by a couple of ladies, and that used to be called second chance service dogs. So interestingly, the concept initially was that they would take rescue dogs or shelter dogs, rehabilitate them and then place them out as service dogs were disabled individuals. I had started another nonprofit organization prior to that that just dealt with guide dogs. Um, but when I wanted to expand my personal mission to help other people, they asked. Second Chance asked me to join their board. And so January of 2011 is when I joined the board is the president, and we restructured and became custom canines. And it’s just growing ever since. And to date, we have 134 teams certified that are all working together. So it’s really awesome. That is really cool. Now, did you have a lot of experience with dogs? I mean, I know you said you had a leash on your hand since you were a small child, but did you have any background and doing this? Um, I didn’t at the time. Um, I grew up with I always had a love affair with dogs Rin, Tin Tin and Lassie. All of you know, the famous dogs you watched on TV. But I’ve always been obsessed with dogs. Um, and my dad had hunting dogs. So when I was growing up, I, you know, take the hunting dogs and make him do obstacles and set up little agility things and just started doing obedience. And, um, when I was in high school, I worked for a veterinary clinic in DeForest, Wisconsin, and really is where I got my feet. What is, you know, a trainer for pet dogs. So I got some experience learning How did teach other people how to teach their dogs to do basic obedience and have good house manners. And I really didn’t get into the service dog or guide dog initiative until I was personally affected by blindness. And, um, I, Haddo reached out to a blind individual that I had met that had a German shepherd, one of my favorite breeds. And he said that he you know, he wanted to show me what his dog could D’oh! And he had gotten his dog from, um a reputable guy. Doug school. And I went out there and at this time I had already been professionally training dogs for for individuals who had pet dogs, but also at the same time, I was doing shots in training with my German shepherds and competing, Um um, doing competitive obedience with my own dogs and doing obedience trials and things like that. So when I went and witnessed what this guy dog do for this blind individual, I’m like, I can do that. I could make my dog stop it curbs and avoid obstacles. You know, that seems so easy to me after all this competitive obedience and dog trial stuff I was doing. So that’s how I got my feet wet. Little did I know how much work actually goes into training, a guide dog and the safety issues involved with it and things. So it definitely was alerting process. But, um, I I’m very persistent and called a lot called a lot of people in a lot of schools in, um, ended up meeting quite a few professionals in the guide dog industry who mentored me along with my, um, my initiative to train guide dogs, and it’s just blossomed from there. That’s really cool. So maybe some perspective I mean, how many hours? How hard is it? How long does it take to train a guy duck? Um, for a guy Doug specifically, um, it it takes about 18 months to two years, sometimes a little bit longer, to actually train the dog to be an effective guide dog. Um, it takes about three years to apprentice to even become a guide dog mobility instructor. So it takes a trainer three years to learn just how to train a guide dog and work with blind individuals and blowing clients. And guide work is probably the most difficulty mentally challenged work that a dog can do. It’s very physical because they’re pulling into that harness so that the blind individual can get feedback, you know, through the harness handle. Um, and those dogs were making life and death choices for you. Sometimes when it’s safe to cross the street when it’s not, um, so that’s actually the hardest job. Teaching a dog is the guide work training, um, the service dog training. It’s a lot more task work, but you’re telling the dog what to do and when to do it, usually depending on what the dog’s job is, so they’re not having to make those great decisions, you know? Is it safe to cross? Is that not? Did this person? You know, this handler make a bad decision? Um, we call the intelligent disobedience when we’re talking about guide dogs. So if I’m with my guide dog Snickers and I met an intersection and I tell him forward because I feel like it’s safe to truss and it’s not he’s gonna disobey me and keep me on that curb and not play in the street because it’s that’s not that’s not good. Yeah, exactly. That’s something that’s got to be something that’s really hard to train a dog to do. It is, it’s, um it’s just real consistency. And and you need a very sound and solid doctor. Be able to do that, um, in a dog that can really handle some pressure because it’s it’s a lot to put on an animal. Yeah, Now one of things I think is really cool about your story is that I mean for yourself, the guide dog and the visually impaired was the angle for you, but But then you recognize there is a need in dogs and helping out in other situations as well. There was, um, definitely. I had one of my volunteers that was helping me raise our guide dog puppies. She was introduced to a mother who had an autistic child, and that was all it took for me. It was just to meet that family and and meet this child who had autism and, um, listening to what their needs were in figuring out what that dog could do to help this child get through life easier. Um, and compared to guide dog training, the other service dog training, you know, from a professional dog training standpoint, Um, but it seems easier. It’s it’s not. But it’s not the life and death thing that the guy Doug’s air having to do but the dogs that help children with autism. A lot of those children are. They call them runners. It’ll just take off, and we don’t know why they do that. But, um, it’s a safety issue for the parents. And then what happens is the families end up not going anywhere because they’re afraid their child’s gonna take off or to have a meltdown in public. And the Dugs assist with that, Um, not only being a weighted blanket for those children. You know, doing that compression therapy. Um, but it’s it’s something consistent, and they’re in an environment that’s really not consistent. And that’s where a lot of autism autistic children have issues. Um, and then we also teach the dogs to be tethered to those children so that the child will wear either a hardness or a waist belt that’s connected to the dogs vest. And then the mother or father or caregiver or a teacher. Um, has the lesion is in control of that dog at all times and kind of initiates what the dog’s doing with the with the artistic child. Nine. Very interesting concept. Yeah, it is in. And I’m guessing you’ve learned a lot over the years of doing this. Of course, yeah, you’re always learning. I I and I think that’s true for any profession. But you’re always learning, and the one thing I love about custom canines is we can custom train these dogs to meet the needs of each individual. Because every person is different, every dog is different, and really, the the reason we’re so successful is because we’re able to take that specific dog in the specific client and make that perfect match. And that’s where all the magic happens. Is matching the right dog to the right client. The right environment, the right lifestyle personnel, the level activity level, all of those things combined. Okay, No, I’m sure you interview the potential clients, but how do you go about finding the dogs and making that perfect match? Wellness. Natural pet food is for pets and their parents who believe, as we do, that good nutrition and healthy food are the building blocks of a long, happy life created by a nutritionist, veterinarians and animal lovers. Wellness recipes provided an ideal balance of nature’s finest ingredients. I won this. Recipes include lean meats, whole grains and fruits and veggies with no wheat, corn or soy, and no edit artificial flavors, colors or preservatives from head to tail. Wellness is nutrition with a purpose. You can learn more at wellness, pet food dot com and follow them on Facebook and instagram at at Wellness Pet food. Sure are. Our application process is quite extensive. Um, it’s a bit overwhelming Sometimes for people. It’s about 24 pages long, but we need to make sure we get, you know, the background information We need to make sure that we’re making the right decisions or to see if a service dogs actually appropriate for this situation. A lot of times, people think a service dog will act like Lassie and go get the neighbor when you need help. Some, you know, I sometimes call it last You syndrome. People will call and say, Well, I want you know, the dog to be able to start the washing machine Tell me when it’s five o’clock so I can take my medicine and things like that. And, um, as much as I’d love to say I can train a dog to do that, it’s just unrealistic to expect a dog to be able to do some some of those functions. And sometimes to, um, you know what? We’re looking at Annapolis and an applicant or disabled individual. We want to make sure that dog’s enhancing to them and not a hinderance to, because it is a lot of work. Um, for instance, guy Doug’s you know, if you don’t use a guide dog you’re using awaking when you get home, you can put the waking in the closet and you don’t have to think about it to you. Leave the house. You know, the next day where the dog, you have to feed them, play with them, groom them, relieve them. You know there’s a vet care. There’s a there’s a lot more, you know, involved with having a dog as opposed to a cane or a wheelchair or another assistive device that a disabled, injured individual might have to use. Yeah, yeah, they’re living being a sentient being, right. So they’ve got No, of course you got it. You got it. And sometimes people don’t realize that when they’re applying for a service dog, Plus, it’s Oh, it’s expensive to maintain a dog, too. The health care and, um, the dog food and things like that. Yeah. So now where do you find the dogs that you you bring into the program? I’m sure you’ve got a particular criteria in way that you go about this. Yes, we do. And we actually have two different programs within custom canines. Um, the first program that we have is our actual program dogs that we obtain. We obtain the dogs as puppies. Um, at eight weeks hold and we do work with several very reputable breeders here in the Midwest and some in California. And then we also have our own small breeding program. Um, and the reason that we go through breeders, um or, you know, user own small breeding program is that we have the health history on the parents. We do the health clearances. Um, we do the health clearances on Mom and Dad. And what we’re trying to do is guarantee longevity for the life of that working team. So if the concept of taking a shelter, dog or a rescue dog is awesome, but the problem is we don’t have any of that health history on the dog. And then also to we spend a lot of time training or doing behavior modification on the dog because they didn’t have the proper imprinting, our socialization that, you know, our baby puppies get starting at eight weeks old. Um, so we do use breeders, and, um, we use a variety of different breeds of dogs in our program. But then we also have our owner training academy, And that was an initiative started by a lot of our military veterans who were calling us up and saying, Hey, I have my own dog. He’s meant waking me up from nightmares. He’s He’s an awesome dog. He’s really helping me. I don’t want to leave the house without him. How do I get him certified? Um, And so that’s when our owner training academy developed. So we we now work with disabled clients that own their own dogs. A lot of those dogs air shelter, a rescue dogs. Um, but they start when they’re young through our program. And essentially we teach. You know, if you were to apply for Owner Training Academy and you had a substantiated medical disability, your dog would come in and we put it through Ah, next sense of temperament evaluation. And if we felt that the dog had the right temperament to be out in public but also had the aptitude to do the service dog task work that the client needed, then we enroll them into our curriculum, and then they go through the same training that our program dogs do. Except, you know, you own your own dog. We don’t own the dog. We don’t. You know, we don’t have to pay for the dog. That’s our line on the owner truck. So it’s It’s It’s It’s great. We’re kind of hitting all aspects here without the programs that were offering. Yeah, I think that’s really cool that you’re not just saying. Hey, you have to use our dogs that we trained. You’re actually you developed a path now that people can come to you and say, Look, my dog is great. And like you said, they just need a little bit more education and training for us to work together. Yeah. Yep. They just need this, the task work and, um, be able to do, ah what it is they need to do to pass our public access test and and be a legitimate service dragon. You know, it’s very important, especially nowadays, with all of the fake service dogs out there and the people going out there buying, um, a service dog vest online and buying a fake registration card. And you know, you have the drugs out there that are not service dogs. What people are pretending they are, and it’s becoming is becoming very difficult for legitimate clients. Because now you have people questioning Well, is it a real dog? Is it a real service dog? Or is that not? Um, you’re seeing that even with the airline industry, too. No, they’re getting a lot more. Um, there are a lot more scrutinizing when you’re when you’re flying with an animal. Yeah, just given some emotional support, animals like peacocks that people have tried to bring on facts. It’s really kind of important. Heard of an emotional support skunk that somebody Okay, walking down the sidewalk with a little harness on and, you know, I’m I’m sure it gives people emotional support, but, um, a big initiative with custom cannons to is educating the general public on what? The difference is between a therapy dog, an emotional support animal and a service dog s o therapy. Dogs are dogs that you know individuals own. They go through a program such as, um, Dogs on call here in Madison, Wisconsin has a great program where they go through Delta society, and then they’re invited into hospitals or schools so that the dog can come in and make other people feel better. The dogs aren’t trained to do specific task work for for anyone in particular with a disability. They’re just there to comfort people. Emotional support animals if if your doctor prescribed you to have and emotional support animal. Essentially, What that does is gives you housing rights. If you’re renting somewhere to have an emotional support animal without having to pay a pet fee for a pet deposit or if they had a no pet policy, you can get around some of those, um, stipulations. If if you have a prescription, um, from a doctor to have an emotional support animal. Unfortunately, there’s no no one else there that regulates any of the training of those animals, so they do not have public access. So a lot of people are confused about that. Um, the service dogs that we train our our task trained to mitigate someone’s disability. So depending on what the disability is, the dogs are trained to do a minimum of three actual tasks that that assist them with their medical issue, whatever that might be. Um, and that’s what gives those dogs public access. Um, because they are actually assisting with, you know, something medical for that specific individual. Yeah, and I love the fact that one of your goals is to educate people. I mean, I was looking at your website, and you’ve got quite a lot of extensive information in your frequently asked questions area just explaining to people what what their rights are with related to service dogs as well. Correct? Correct. There’s a lot to learn, and and legislation is, is going to be changing. It’s just, um, making it more clear. I think the line’s been blurred a little bit, Um, as faras what therapy, service, dog and emotional support animal is. And as an organization, you know, we have to advocate and educate, and that’s that’s a big part of our job. And we also teach our clients the same thing because they’re the They’re the ones out there in public talking to people. And they also help educate on what their rights are in, what, what a service dog is and sure representing it. You got it. You got it. Sounds like you’ve got a lot of stuff going on. I mean, what is it? What is the average week look like for you? Oh, my goodness. Quite busy. We had ah, we had a facility donated to us. Um, in march of 2017. So beyond the placements and all the training that we’re doing with our clients and dogs and puppy raisers and volunteers. We’re also renovating our facilities so that we have more space. It’s it’s just under 8000 square feet, and it’s a wonderful, um, it’s just a Knauss, um, place for for our veterans and our clients to come and train with their dogs and, um, have a safe place, especially for for military veterans to come in and train. Um, so we’ve been really busy with our facility getting that up and running. Um, we also have a Southern California branch, um, near the Palm Springs area. Our director of training is a Vietnam veteran. Also trained guide dogs for over 45 years and retired from a guide dog school out there. And now he volunteers for us full time, is our director of training and works with a lot of our military veterans in the Southern California area. So we’re We’re quite busy. Yeah, definitely. Yeah. We have 44 dogs in training in our program within our program right now. Plus, we’re working with approximately 24 owner trainers at this time. So pretty full, pretty full dance card right now. It is it is, but it’s amazing, and that’s that’s our paycheck, though. I mean, it is a It definitely takes a village to do what we’re doing. And the heart honor logo stands for a lot because it takes a lot of heart in love and and dedication to do this for other people. And, um, we could not do this without our volunteers and our volunteer puppy raisers. They take our puppies in at eight weeks old, and I love them and care for them and and take them all over the community and get them socialized so that they can be a life enhancing partner for somebody down the road. Yeah, no, that’s really cool in. And it is such amazing work that you’re doing. I mean, it’s it’s just really cool to hear about all the different things that dogs were able to do, and and the way that you’ve pivoted your program over the years to support different needs that people bring to is just really cool. It is. It is in that what custom canines is all about, eh? Always been that person that won’t shut a door and somebody if if I can’t do it I’ll figure it out. Either figure it out or find someone else that’s willing to help out, um, to do it. But it’s been It’s been a great a great ride. And, um, it’s just been amazing that the smallest dog we’ve certified to date spend a little Chihuahua named Oscar, Um, and the largest dog that we’ve certified is a big Newfoundland named Sam. So we’ve we’ve done everything, um, you know, a lot, a lot of different kinds of dogs. So even though they’re little dogs are there still mighty and they can do a big job? Yeah, absolutely. Animals are amazing. Amazing creatures for sure. And then so, Nicole, I mean, as were kind of coming to the end here. Is there anything else you want to mention before we wrap things up? Um, just that we’re you know, we are a non profit organization. We gift our dogs free of charge to disabled individuals. I think that’s important to note, because there is a lot of, um, there. There are a lot of organizations out there that charge a lot of money further dogs and sometimes aren’t as well trained as they need to be. Um So I think that’s important to note. And we exist solely on donations from individuals and corporations and organizations that want to sponsor dogs for your military veterans or or other disabled clients. So if anyone out there is interested in volunteering, Beat to be a puppy raiser volunteering at our facility or Tony didn’t Vega dog food or donating financially, every little bit helps. Yeah, absolutely. And I know they can go to your website custom canines dot org’s and find out more about all of that. You got it yet, and we have a wonderful volunteer who’s doing awesome with our social media pages on Facebook and Instagram so people can start following some of our service dogs and the journeys that they’re going on and and seen some of the successes with our clients. And it’s it’s just awesome. Yeah, that’s just fasten. I definitely agree. I’m I really appreciate you coming on and sharing your story and from something that happened to you. You’ve turned this into a lifelong passion that’s helping both animals and people, and that’s just amazing to me. So I really appreciate you coming on today, Nicole. It was really great to talk to you. Well, thank you so much. Any time. I’d love to follow up with you down the road. Once our facility is totally up and running and, um, give you an update, it be amazing. That would be great. Thank you so much, Nicole. You’re welcome. 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