- June 4, 2019
When Ashton Kaatz was 7 years old, she read about service-dog training in an “American Girl” magazine and decided she wanted to do that, too. Her dream was to give someone with a disability the chance to live a fuller life.
Her parents told her she was too young, so she had to postpone her dream until she was older.
She got serious about her plan when she became a teenager and started teaching Maverick, the family dog, to prove she could handle the challenge.
This led her to an 8-week-old puppy named Duchess, a golden retriever that came to live with the Kaatzes in January.
Now 6 months old, Duchess is mastering commands and learning such tasks as turning on a light switch and opening the refrigerator door. She has proven to be adept at learning new tasks, Ashton said.
All trainers must learn the correct commands and follow a set of guidelines.
“We have to stick to certain words, because when she goes to advanced training, we want to have a uniform language for the dog so they don’t get confused,” Ashton said.
Duchess is exposed to a minimum of 30 minutes daily of obedience and mobility task work, plus five hours a week of public socialization.
“A lot of times I’ll take her to Publix or Target or SeaWorld, or my family really likes to go to Disney Springs and the Disney area,” Ashton said. “That’s really good for her learning to ignore things like children, traffic, fireworks.”
The duo spent two days together recently at Foundation Academy — where Ashton, a southwest Orlando resident, just finished her freshman year.
“There’s a possibility (Duchess) could be placed with someone in high school or college with PTSD or autism, so being in a hectic environment was really good for her,” Ashton said.
She will continue training the puppy for two to four more months, and then the dog will move on to the next level. She will be placed with an inmate in the prison system in south Florida, where her basic behaviors will be strengthened over the next four months.
Her next stop is with another puppy raiser when she turns 1, and then she goes to the advanced level, where New Horizons professionals assess Duchess to find what job she is best suited for based on her abilities.
She will be placed with a New Horizons client at the end of two years, and after the graduation ceremony, she will go to her new and permanent home.
Ashton said she would like to meet the person Duchess will be helping; and she will get to see Duchess again, as difficult as that might be.
“I just have to keep in my head that she's not mine, that she has a greater purpose in life,” Ashton said. “Especially because she wants to work. If a dog doesn't want to work, he or she won't do it. … She gets excited when she sees me pull out the vest.”
The teen has enjoyed watching Duchess’s transformation.
“I have always loved dogs and animals, and I think seeing behaviors shaped is a cool thing,” she said. “I’ve always had a way with animals that just worked. … that’s how my brain works; figuring out struggles they are having.”
It’s definitely a natural ability, her mother, Angela Kaatz, said.
This is a volunteer gig for Ashton; she does not get paid for her work training Duchess and any other future puppies. She will still be making some spending money this summer, though, because one of her neighbors recently hired her to personally train their puppy.
Contact Amy Quesinberry at [email protected]