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Mission Working Dogs visit the Colisee

By Nathan Tsukroff

LEWISTON – Mission Working Dogs was on a fundraising mission last Friday night at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee, with more than eight dogs and handlers greeting hockey fans at the entrance.

About a year ago, just as the COVID-19 pandemic began, Christy Gardner of Lewiston founded Mission Working Dogs to train service dogs to help people in the community with disabilities.

Roslyn Keith of Lewiston takes a few minutes to visit with Grace, a therapy dog being trained by Lewiston chiropractor Dr. Phil McLean and his wife, Amy, before the hockey game at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee on Friday night. Therapy and service dogs being trained with Mission Working Dogs greeted fans at the entrance to the Colisee as part of a fund-raising event for the group. (Tsukroff photo)

A therapy dog provides psychological or physiological therapy to individuals other than their handler, while “a service dog is trained to help mitigate the individual disabilities of one person. So, if you were missing a leg, or you were blind, or you were diabetic, that dog is trained specifically for you,” she said. “And they can all be trained differently, because everybody’s disability may be different.”

Gardner was Serving as a Sergeant in the United States Army Military Police in Asia in 2006 when she was severely injured. She survived with a double-leg amputation, a spinal cord injury, and a traumatic brain injury, which eventually led her to accept her golden retriever service dog named Moxie in 2010

 Now retired at age 13, Moxie “gave me my life back, my independence,” Gardner said. Having a service dog “gave my family peace of mind to know that if I have a seizure anywhere, she’s trained to call 911. She’s also trained to go out and get specific neighbors if I need help.” Moxie was, “basically, another person that can take care of me!”

Gardner is training a new service dog, Independence, whom she calls “Indie”.

Handlers and trainers with Mission Working Dogs of Lewiston greeted visitors to a hockey game at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee last Friday night as part of a fund-raising event for the non-profit group. Dogs are trained as either therapy dogs, to help people with emotional needs, or service dogs, to help people who are disabled. (Tsukroff photo)

Service dog training ranges between one and two years, with dogs learning a variety of commands. Moxie, knew 160 different commands when she completed her training.

Gardner said she started her non-profit group because she has “been a dog trainer for nine years now, and I could not keep up with the demand of people asking for service dogs and therapy dogs.”

“We just had our first graduating class in April,” she said. Two of the four dogs that graduated were at the Colisee on Friday. “The arena here is a great training environment for the dogs” and their handlers, because the crowds, the food, and the different game noises “are just a great way to spice up their training.” Dogs are trained to remain calm under various conditions to properly meet the needs of their handlers.

There were also four therapy dogs at the game, including two – Bentley and Grace – who spend every day in the office of Lewiston chiropractor Dr. Phil McLean and his wife, Amy.

The McLeans are raising Grace to be a therapy dog. When she is old enough, she will be bred, and her puppies will be put into the Mission Working Dogs program, McLean said. Bentley is seven years old and is also being trained as a service dog to help someone with handicaps. He’ll be able to follow directions, such as “turn left” or “turn right”, or push a button on demand. “He’s got the perfect temperament for it,” McLean said.

Rebecca Mann is the vice-president and veteran’s advocate for Mission Working Dogs. She loves animals and has three dogs, including her service dog, Sully. She served in the army for 11 years, including two deployments to Afghanistan. She was medically retired in 2016 after suffering an injury that led to a double-leg amputation. She and Gardner both have prosthetic legs.

Lauren King is the secretary for the non-profit group, working as a school teacher in central Maine.

Claire Parker is the treasurer and youth advisor for the group. She is the owner and handler for Lucky Tim, the facility dog for Leeds Central School in Leeds.

As the secretary for Leeds Central, Parker brings Lucky to school every day. He plays with the pre-K through grade 6 children at recess, running around on just three legs after a front-leg amputation several years ago.

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