Dexter the service dog goes public

By Michelle Cordonnier

December 4, 2012

[caption id="attachment_14165" align="alignnone" width="211"] Dexter, a full-blooded Chihuahua, is a licensed service dog for asthmatic children.[/caption]

When thinking of service dogs, large breed dogs, like the German Shepherd, usually come to mind. Who would imagine that an under 10-pound Chihuahua would be trained and licensed as a service dog for asthmatic children?

Missouri Western nursing student Katelynn Crawford is the owner and trainer of the tiny Dexter. Crawford’s entire family believes in animal therapy, and they believe pets, specifically dogs, can be very therapeutic.

Dexter, a full-blooded Chihuahua, is one-and-a-half years old. Dexter has spent approximately half his life (nine months) in training to be a therapeutic source to mentally handicapped children who suffer from asthma and other breathing disorders.

“Dexter, and other dogs like him, can be a huge source of comfort and therapy to someone who suffers from asthma,” Crawford said. “He has trained with my mother, Shirley Catlett, at Savannah Middle School learning life skills with the children.”

Dexter is specifically trained to help regulate the breathing of a person having an asthma attack. By lying on a person’s chest and breathing with the person, the person’s natural body response is to relax its breathing, as Dexter relaxes his. Dexter is not a magical dog, he cannot save a life by performing CPR, but he can be a source of therapy in regulation of someone’s breathing.

Not all dogs can be service-trained, however. It takes a specific type of personality for the dog and an enormous amount of practice for the dog to become trained and licensed to be a service dog. Until this semester, upon Crawford’s entrance into the nursing program, Dexter went everywhere with Crawford.

“It depends on the personality of the animal Dexter is calm and was easy to train,” Crawford said. “People don’t realize how much training and work that is involved; I have another dog at home right now that I am trying to train, but he’s just a spaz.”

Recently, Dexter took part in an animal safety presentation for Western’s nursing department. The student presentation demonstrated the benefits of animal therapy, and he was used as a prop to demonstrate the correct way to interact with him as well as how service dogs can be used for therapeutic regimens.

Students Crawford and Bobbi Dickerson demonstrated in class how the tiny dog could be a source of comfort and therapy. Dickerson is also a pet owner and believes animal therapy has its benefits.

 Service dogs are taught to be calm and to not respond to outside stimuli -- after all, they are working. Dexter, like all service dogs, knows that when he comes out of his bag/kennel, he is working. He is trained to stay by Crawford’s side and not to bark unless there is a medical emergency.

“He is finally starting to get to know me, and I have worked with him a lot,” Dickerson said.

Crawford’s entire family are animal lovers. Both Crawford’s parents take pets to work with them. Crawford works for St. Lukes in Smithville, Mo., and she is working on obtaining licensing so that Dexter can go to work with her there, as he has in the past with her mother.

The Chihuahua will continue to work as a service dog, helping with mentally handicapped children until he is ready for retirement. Dogs will let a person know when they are tired of working. According to Crawford, Dexter will start retreating and not want to go places anymore when he gets old and no longer wants to work. There is no set age limit for how long a service dog will work.

Dexter has a partner, Annabelle, who is Crawford’s Mother’s dog. Dexter and Annabelle have worked together at Savannah middle school. The two have also partnered up to be the ring bearer and flower girl in Crawford’s wedding when she married Cody Crawford earlier this year.

He is not only a service dog and "child" to Crawford, he has become a star, as well. Dexter participated in the Kansas City Cinco de Mayo costume parade for dogs last May, and he has become a media sensation since.

Photos of Dexter in costume were published last summer in several newspapers in the United States, and even in different countries -- London, England, to be exact. Dexter made his television debut on CNN. Crawford’s mother even found photos on the internet during a recent pet costume search.

Dexter appeared in the parade in an army tank, with the words “Devil Dogs” emblazoned across the back. Crawford’s husband Cody built Dexter’s tank costume. Crawford’s father-in-law, a former marine, was the inspiration behind the costume.

While Dexter has received much attention from the media, Crawford believes animals are very beneficial.

“I wouldn’t know what to do without animals...” Crawford said.

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