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Damascus dog trainer digs deep for veterans in need

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: LAURA KNUDSON  - Cheryl Mulick, a volunteer for Paws Assisting Veterans, receives a kiss from one of the service dogs she is training.

Tucked away in the rolling hills of Damascus is dog trainer Cheryl Mulick’s 1960s style ranch house, complete with a barn converted into a dog training facility.

The property is home to Mulick’s 19-year old business, The Master’s Degree Dog Training, which offers private and group classes, as well as live-in and online programming. Since she began breeding and showing dogs in the early 1980s, Mulick has worked with hundreds of dogs and continues to see quite a few every week.

“Every year, even now, I could easily deal with 100 dogs,” she said.

But a desire to give back to others caused Mulick to recently embark on a new journey in dog training.

Earlier this year, Mulick got involved with Paws Assisting Veterans (PAVE), a nonprofit organization based in Cornelius, dedicated to training service dogs for veterans with mental or physical disabilities.

She is training two German shepherds and one Labrador retriever for the group.

“I do nothing else but this and the hours are killer,” she said. “But I love what I do.”

Mulick works alongside her daughter, Christina. The pair take a dog or two with them everywhere they go, since part of the animal’s training involves good behavior in public.

“My daughter has taken them to high school graduations and on blind dates,” Mulick said.

Prior to PAVE, Mulick mostly worked with non-service dogs, teaching them basic manners and obedience cues like “stay,” and “sit.” She also addressed behavioral problems like jumping and nipping.

But what sets PAVE apart and challenged her, she said, are the specific tasks service dogs need to know in order to assist a veteran.

Being comfortable in public spaces is huge for the dogs, Mulick said. Service animals need to learn how to work in confined spaces, because they must remain calm while sitting in cars, under a restaurant table or beneath the counter at a bank.

PAVE dogs also are trained to walk next to wheel chairs. Proper maneuvering is important since most PAVE dogs go to veterans who have Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD). If the veteran is becoming uncomfortable in a large crowd or is easily startled, the dog is trained to alert the veteran and move in front of them as a blocking technique.

Stopping a panic attack or nightmare also is in the job description.

“Dogs are very intuitive,” Mulick said. During panic attacks most dogs will wonder what’s going on with their owner, she said. “It’s a natural response for them.”

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: LAURA KNUDSON - One of the PAVE Service dogs in training gets used to her new service vest.

PAVE dogs are trained to recognize instances like these and respond accordingly by poking and nudging their owners, even if they are asleep.

Some might wonder how trainers accomplish teaching service dogs these human-like traits.

“You take little tiny tasks and you chain them together,” said Mulick. “All of it is done with positive reinforcement.”

Disciplining a dog as a correctional measure is rarely used in training anymore, Mulick said. Instead, she shows the dog the task and prompts them to do it. When they comply, Mulick clicks a device and gives them a treat.

The sound signals that completing the task is a good thing and encourages them to do it the next time.

The dogs will stay with Mulick for up to two years before going to a veteran.

Although she did not come from a military family, patriotism is in her blood.

“This is my chance to give back to the service men,” she said.

Having already met one of the veterans, Mulick said, “It definitely energized me to see the excitement in his eyes.”

The four dogs currently in training will be paired with veterans diagnosed with PTSD.

“Some of these people have trouble leaving their house,” Mulick said. “Sometimes (a service dog) is all they have left.”

But what will surely be a happy first meeting between pup and veteran, will no doubt mean a tearful goodbye for Mulick.

“We do get attached and I know I am going to blubber all over the place,” she said. “But it makes it easier when you know the dog is going to a good home and a good cause.”



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