Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Command Central: Susquehanna Service Dogs opens new center to expand mission

Puppy-raiser Casey Gould & Magoo

Assistance dogs provide people the [paw]sibility to live independently.

In fact, that is the mission of Susquehanna Service Dogs, an organization that breeds, raises, trains and places task-oriented Labrador and golden retrievers with children and adults with disabilities.

To grow their operation, Susquehanna Service Dogs (SSD) recently opened a 13,000-square-foot training facility to provide a homebase for volunteers, trainers and partners to work together on tasks with their canines using residential- and public-style simulations.

The Robin C. Reedy Training Center was built on a horse farm in Grantville, yielding acres of grasslands with three large play yards. The center’s footprint includes 24 kennels, two training rooms, a common area, washer and dryer, accessible bathrooms and a simulated elevator.

The organization, part of Keystone Human Services, relies on its 400-plus volunteers to fulfill its mission and serve Pennsylvania and the four-hour driving radius of the training center.

“We couldn’t do what we do without our volunteers,” said Director Deb Tack. “From our whelping homes to puppy raisers, sitters, canine enrichment program participants and everyone in between, this community helps our dogs change lives.”

York resident Casey Gould has been volunteering with SSD as a puppy raiser for five years. Gould has raised six dogs and is thankful for the new center’s training facilities and the networking opportunities it offers.

“This new center provides a place for our family of staff, volunteers, trainers and partners to meet and learn from one another,” Gould said. “There are areas for us to practice skills such as public-style bathrooms, a washer and dryer and an elevator. The kitchen is a great place for teams to learn how to navigate around tables, chairs and appliances—as they would in their partner’s home.”

Following Assistance Dogs International’s guidelines, SSD breeds primarily Labrador retrievers with a limited number of golden retrievers and Lab/golden crosses. They consider genetic testing, health checks and temperament before breeding or choosing a mate from another program within the overall organization.

The organization trains for a variety of services and allows the dogs to be placed in the career best suited to their top skills. Careers range from autism and psychiatric services to mobility, hearing and seizure response.

From birth to 2 years old, the service dogs in training are exposed to new faces, new environments and positive reinforcement to prepare them to become comfortable with the unknown.

Partners can apply for a service dog, interview and have a home visit, wait for the right match and visit the center for two weeks of training before they are ready to leave with their counterpart. The group has more than 150 active teams of partners and service and facility dogs that have graduated from the program. Each team is followed for the working life of the dog and through retirement.

“We work with our partners to make sure that they are set up for success,” Tack said. “Each service dog is trained specifically for tasks that will help their partner be independent. We then train the partner on cues and tasks and offer opportunities for them to participate in online classes and educational opportunities beyond graduation.”

It costs SSD more than $30,000 to fund an assistance dog through their entire working life. Visit their website to learn more about naming a puppy, sponsoring a dog’s harness or donating items to their wish list.

Looking to be more hands on? Volunteer to be a puppy raiser and help SSD train a 9-week-old puppy for 15 to 18 months. No experience is necessary. They will teach you everything you need to know about raising an assistance dog. All veterinarian costs are covered.

In 1993, founder Nancy Fierer started training dogs from her home with a long-term vision for growth. Tack and her team at SSD believe that the founder’s spirit lives within the new center, and she can see them making her dream a reality.

“A dog can change someone’s life,” Tack said. “Our founder knew that and saw the impact firsthand—as have I. Our dogs help our community members gain independence to complete tasks and live on their own successfully, living the lives they want to lead.”

Susquehanna Service Dogs’ Robin C. Reedy Training Center is located at 1078 Gravel Hill Rd., Grantville. For more information, visit Follow them on Facebook for training photos, a puppy cam and to see their mission come to life.

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