Aspiring non-profit brings first service dog training to U.P.

RAPID RIVER — An aspiring non-profit organization is bringing the only service dog training to the Upper Peninsula, a service that often has to be sought miles away for U.P. residents. In this week’s ABC 10 Feature, Melanie Palmer caught up with the woman behind Yooper Service Dogs.

When Katie Johnson, a Marine Corps Veteran moved to the Upper Peninsula, she noticed a significant need in the area.

“That’s when through a Facebook page, I discovered that there are no service dog organizations up here at all. I didn’t really consider myself qualified honestly, to run one but when I saw how lacking it was up here, and how big the need was, I was like I can do something,” said Yooper Service Dogs Founder, Katie Johnson.

After Katie returned from a deployment, she discovered that she was in need of a service dog herself.

“I think it was 2014 when I came back from a tour in Japan and had just been introduced to the idea of service dogs for something other than used as guide dogs, or immobility. It was a new concept to me at the time; fortunately I was able to find an organization in Georgia to help me out. I was stationed in North Carolina at the time,” said Johnson.

She has since been with Coco, her current service dog for six years. When training to have the dog by her side, the process would have been more difficult without help.

“Fortunately I was able to go through an organization so I had help, but up here in the U.P. and there not really being anywhere to help than newly us, it can be very difficult. All you really have is like Google and Youtube here,” said Johnson.

The eligibility for having one of these dogs varies. “It has to be basically any medical or mental health concern substantially limits one or more major life activities,” said Johnson.

These activities could include walking, sleeping, eating, even socializing with others. The most common individuals seeking Katie’s services suffer from PTSD or depression. “With something like PTSD, it’s one of those things where hyperactivity is a very common thing that people with PTSD have, where they have really heightened anxiety wherever they go because they are always concerned about something really bad happened,” said Johnson.

The service dogs are trained to take away some of that hyperactivity. Coco is also trained to alert Katie if someone is approaching her, create personal space around Katie to avoid unexpected interactions, and even turn on the lights to wake up someone from a nightmare.

“Say someone is walking down the street, what she would do is she would notice that person and she would walk right next to me. That would maintain some personal space and I wouldn’t have to worry about someone sneaking up behind me or anything like that,” said Johnson.

Katie is using her experience to help others by training service dogs along with their owners in the Escanaba area.

“It’s one of those things where they still are training their dogs. We essentially call it guided owner training, just because I am not a professional even though the training is similar to a professional organization,” said Johnson.

A process that can be frustrating on your own. “It’s completely legal to owner train your own dog but unfortunately if you have no guidance, it’s a nightmare,” said Johnson.

All the services being offered for disabled individuals are currently free of charge. Although Katie has already offered various classes to residents across the U.P., the organization is searching for a permanent venue for the services to be held at.

“We don’t have our own space, a lot of the stuff I do, I operate out of my own home and we use other spaces as we can. We were using Bay College but obviously they are closed for the summer. For the summer, we will be using the Lions Club as much as we can. We are looking for another space because the Lions Club is not going to be able to accommodate us for every training session we’ll need to do. If anyone knows of a place in the Escanaba area, we would certainly love do know about that,” said Johnson.

The main mission behind this organization is to give back something that individuals may have lost.

“It gives you so much more independency. It is so much easier to rely on a dog and it gives you a lot more of your dignity back, to rely on a dog rather than a person all the time,” said Johnson.

If you find yourself in a situation where you need the services that Katie is offering or just have questions regarding how a service dog differs from an emotional support dog or therapy dog, you can contact her through the organization’s Facebook page, Yooper Service Dogs.