Welcome to the fourth installment of our ‘Women and Working Dogs’ series at Highland Canine. In the past few months, we’ve looked at the interesting stories behind our phenomenal female trainers, who work with incredible dogs for a number of purposes.
We started our series back in December, when we sat down with Brandi Wallwork, Director of Service Dog Programs. We discovered the journey that led Brandi to Highland Canine and learned about the rewarding aspects of matching fully-trained service dogs with families across the nation.
Our second article focused on Shana Parsnow, Manager of Working Dog Operations. Shana talked about the challenges of training dogs for detection, trailing and patrol purposes, in addition to the satisfaction of making a huge difference to society by taking harmful substances off the streets.
In our most recent article, we spoke to Amber Siebsen, an important member of our working dog team. Amber’s role involves assessing dogs for working capabilities, and she also helped to train a conservation detection dog to help locate bees.
For this article, we spoke with Abby Trogdon, a Service Dog Trainer at Highland Canine. Abby graduated from the Master Dog Trainer program at the School for Dog Trainers and now plays a pivotal role in Highland Canine’s Service Dog division.
For more than a decade, the Service Dog division at Highland Canine has been proud to provide fully-trained service dogs to individuals. Whether it is an autism assistance dog for a child, a mobility assistance dog for a senior, or a seizure alert dog for epileptics, these incredible animals bring immeasurable benefits. They can improve the confidence, independence and quality of life for their handler in many different ways.
Before service dogs can help their handler, though, they need to undergo comprehensive training to ensure they can perform their assigned tasks reliably. This is where the expertise of a service dog trainer comes to the fore. The process is lengthy and requires a calm temperament on the part of the trainer. Patience, attentiveness and an eye for detail are also vital.
Abby Trogdon is an integral part of the service dog training process at Highland Canine, displaying all of these traits as she works with the rest of the team to train and deliver reliable service dogs to those who require them. As Abby explains, she spent her formative years around animals in her own home.
“I always had animals growing up – whether it be a dog, or some other animal that needed a home at the time. I can’t remember a time in my life when I haven’t had a dog at my side!”
As Abby grew up, her passion for dogs continued to develop – which led her to take on voluntary work.
“When I was 18, I started volunteering at my local Humane Society and soon fell in love with a fearful terrier-mix puppy that I adopted and named Olive. Olive was extremely fearful and reactive from the time she was a young puppy, and I sought help from a dog trainer in my town.
It was through Olive’s training that I decided I wanted to be a dog trainer so that I could help other dogs like her.”
The journey to the School for Dog Trainers
With her ambition to become a dog trainer developing, Abby took jobs in the pet industry to continue to work around dogs and gain experience.
“I worked as a dog walker/sitter and became a certified Veterinary Assistant. I also took grooming classes at my local community college.
I enjoyed all of these things – but found my passion when I started dog training.”
Abby decided that the best way to embark on her career as a dog trainer was gaining certification in the field, and enrolled in the Master Dog Trainer program at the School for Dog Trainers. She learned about the school and its courses after searching online.
“I came to visit the facility and after touring the school and talking to those who worked here – including Jason (Purgason, President of Highland Canine Training, LLC) – I knew this was where I wanted to go. I immediately went home and filled out an application!”
As many students who have taken the course would agree, the Master Dog Trainer program was a daunting task for Abby. The program lasts for six months and involves a mixture of hands-on dog training and classroom work.
“I enjoyed my time at the School for Dog Trainers – the classes were very challenging and I enjoyed all the different aspects of dog training that I got to learn about in the Master Dog Trainer program.
Highland exceeded my expectations so much so that I applied for the Internship. It was my internship that led me to my current role here at Highland as a Service Dog Trainer.”
Becoming a Service Dog Trainer
After serving time as an intern, Abby moved to her current, full-time role with Highland Canine as a Service Dog Trainer. Abby’s job comprises a variety of different tasks, as she explains.
“In my role, I do everything from socializing puppies, meeting families and learning their requirements – to the actual training of the dogs for each person’s specific needs.
I also assist in the delivering of the finished dogs to their families and teaching them what they need to know to be successful service dog owners.”
The job is very demanding, requiring patience and determination. It takes months – if not years – of hard work to train a service dog to the level to perform tasks reliably. This training covers several aspects, not only working with the dog on its assigned tasks, but also ensuring the dog is environmentally stable and able to work in a variety of places.
“Each day we teach the dogs their tasks, which can be anything from performing deep pressure therapy by laying on their person, turning on light switches for people with limited mobility, barking to alert someone to a seizure, or trailing the scent of a lost child with autism.
We also take the service dogs on outings for socialization to expose them to as many experiences as possible. A few of the places we go every week are Waggy Tales reading program where the students get to meet and read to a service dog, and a nursing home where we take the dogs to visit with the residents.
Many of the nursing home residents say seeing our service dogs is the highlight of their week – and I think a few of our service dogs would agree and say the same thing if they could talk!”
The challenges - and rewards - of training service dogs
As you might expect, Abby’s job is a challenging one. It requires persistence, as she is working with a longer-term goal in mind. Not only that, but Abby’s work isn’t a simple day job which ends when she leaves the training center.
“My job as a service dog trainer is 24/7! Not only am I working with multiple dogs on a daily basis, but I almost always have a service dog living with me at home. It may be a puppy that is too young to stay at the training center, or an older dog that needs more practice in a home setting.”
Although there are challenges, the experience of working as a service dog trainer for Highland has been undoubtedly positive for Abby. She can see the transformation in the dogs she works with, and understands the benefits they will bring to their eventual handlers.
“The most enjoyable and rewarding part of my job is actually working with and training the dogs. Watching a service dog grow from a playful and goofy puppy to a dog that can perform life saving tasks for their new owner is very rewarding.
Getting to deliver dogs to their new families and watching them change the life of the person receiving them for the better is amazing and I feel so lucky to be able to be a part of it.
One of my favorite parts of my job is trailing with our autism assistance dogs. I love watching the dogs work independently and become more confident in their natural abilities. I am always so proud of the dogs when they find who they are looking for, and the dogs are always excited too!”
Abby has also been able to take part in other amazing experiences as part of the Highland Canine Training team. Working as part of the production team on the podcast, A Life of Dogs, has enabled her to travel around the country to hear some incredible stories.
“Working on the podcast has been a great experience! I have met so many great people and heard many interesting stories. I have had once-in-a-lifetime experiences working on the podcast team, from hunting rats at night in New York City with a group of terriers, to getting to see sled dog teams take off for the Iditarod trail in Alaska.
Gathering content and hearing unique dog stories from people and then getting to share it with our listeners who otherwise would never hear them is such a fun part of my job and I truly enjoy every minute of it.”
“These dogs are going to make such a huge impact on the world around me!”
Abby understands the importance of her role, and whilst appreciating it is a job that requires a lot of hard work from her, she says she wouldn’t change it for anything.
“Life as a dog trainer isn’t all puppies and dog kisses. It’s a lot of long days and hard work, but watching the dogs enjoy and excel at the roles they train for and seeing how they can change the lives of their owners and handlers is very rewarding.
Every day, I wake up excited to work with these dogs, because I know they are going to make such a huge impact on the world around me!”