Poster Can Do Canines
Finley was recently placed as a mobility assist dog by Can Do Canines in New Hope, Minnesota.

Classical music has gone to the dogs at Can Do Canines

Interview: Julie Amacher talks with Jeff Johnson of Can Do Canines

Can Do Canines is a special nonprofit organization that was founded 32 years ago by Al Peters as a hearing dog organization. Since then, it has expanded its assistance training for its dogs to help with other types of disabilities such as mobility issues, seizures, Type 1 diabetes and children with autism. And classical music plays a key role in the dogs’ education.

Most of the dogs at Can Do Canines are privately bred Labrador retrievers to ensure the success rate of the dogs training, but some standard poodles are used for clients with dog allergies. Rescue dogs are used, too, according to Jeff Johnson, executive director of Can Do Canines, but they are becoming harder to find because of the popularity of adoption where the agency is based, in the Twin Cities suburb of New Hope.  

Can Do Canines
Casanova, a black poodle, is being trained to be a hearing assist dog at Can Do Canines in New Hope.

The dogs go through intense training for about two and a half years before being paired with an owner, Johnson tells YourClassical program director Julie Amacher. (Listen to her interview using the player above.) The dogs spend their first six months at a prison training facility through a program that Can Do participates in. The dogs go to one of seven prisons in Minnesota and Wisconsin, where they stay in a special wing dedicated to training assistance dogs. There, the dogs are paired with specially chosen inmates who teach them basic obedience.  

The next step is volunteer training. In this stage, the dogs learn socialization with volunteers. Assistance dogs need to know how to behave in public places and not have a reaction to things that are going on around them, to be focused solely on their owner, Johnson says.  

In the final part of their training, the dogs find out what they like to do and are housed in kennels at the Can Do facility, where there are about 25 dogs in one room together. Such housing can be overstimulating for a dog because studies show that dogs are highly sensitive to noises that most humans don’t notice. This is where classical music comes in. 

To soothe the dogs stress level in the kennels, Can Do staff members play YourClassical MPR’s radio station. A study done by the National Center for Biotechnology information found that “exposure to classical music appears to have a calming influence on dogs in stressful environments.”  

Staff members say there is a significant difference in the dogs’ behavior when they play classical music in the kennel all day compared with when they don’t. The dogs’ stress responses aren’t as prevalent when the music is on. They tend not to bark as much, and they sleep more.  

“We have found that this has been very enriching and helpful both for us staff and for our dogs,” Johnson says. 

Dogs in kennel
A radio is preset to YourClassical MPR to help soothe the dogs being trained to assist people at Can Do Canines.

Once the dogs’ training is complete, they are about two and a half years old and ready to meet their forever partner. The dogs can make a major impact on the lives of people who need assistance.  

Johnson shares a story about a successful executive who was extremely active before he started to develop hearing loss and eventually lost his hearing completely. The executive became withdrawn because he couldn’t communicate with others the way he used to. He felt alone and isolated from the rest of the world. Then he found his canine “soulmate” at Can Do. He told Johnson that he felt as if the dog saved his life. (According to Reuters, hearing loss affects people’s mental health significantly because they aren’t able to engage in social discourse the way they used to.)

Can Do Canines
Ivy, a yellow Labrador retriever, is being trained as a mobility assist dog at Can Do Canines in New Hope.

The dogs lead enriching lives by helping their owners and they enhance their owners’ lives by offering them companionship and helping them with things that one might take for granted.  

The Can Do program is made possible through volunteer work. Volunteers can contribute in many ways, including fostering puppies (short term or long term), working at the facility and helping with events.  

The dogs learn so many amazing things about their owners that people wouldn’t know unless they were told, such as being able to sense low blood sugar levels on their diabetic owner’s breath and alerting them.  

“I'm shocked by what dogs can be taught to do,” Johnson says. “We train each dog specifically for their individual client, and our staff is constantly figuring out quirky things that a specific person might need. And the dogs learn it. They just they figure it out.”  

A dog can go beyond just being a pet. They can be taught so many different things and can become lifesavers to people who need them most.

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