Penny Layne, of Moon Township, is the regional liaison for Paws with a Cause, a national organization that trains and provides service dogs ... animals that assist the physically challenged with hearing, tasks such retrieving and opening doors, and pulling wheelchairs. Layne coordinates a foster-puppy program, recruits volunteers, trains dogs and fund-raises with Fawn, the Greater Pittsburgh demo dog.
Tell me how you got started in Paws with a Cause.
I was hit by a drunk driver and damaged my foot. I spent two years and two months without wearing a shoe, and I really realized how difficult it can be to get around. I had done dog-obedience training, and trained search-and-rescue dogs before. I thought that background, and understanding truly what the people's challenges are, would be a great combination.
So you've always enjoyed working with dogs.
Everybody knew I was dog-crazy. When I was little, I used to knock on neighbors' doors, not to see if their kids wanted to play, but if their dog could come out.
Do certain people have a gift for dog training?
You have to be able to read a dog, interpret their body language. Being able to adjust your voice is a huge part of it ... very soft and easy-going, only firm when you need to be, never yelling. A dog doesn't know English, so if I keep saying something to him in a language he doesn't know, it doesn't help any if I scream it at him.
Do you do all the dog training for Paws locally?
The puppies are raised by foster families. At around 18 months, they go back to the Paws headquarters in Michigan, where they go through what we call "college." My job here is to tweak their training to the client, and teach the client how to implement everything that we've done. Then, follow up in case the client's needs change.
Do any dogs flunk out of college?
We call that "career changing." Fawn is a career-change. She was going to go to a client, but she had a little disagreement with a cat at the headquarters. With clients, we're worried about safety, but as a demo dog, she's great.
Is it hard to let them go once you've had them in your house?
If you didn't bond with them, you would not be normal. I call them "happy tears," because what you just did, what you were able to help the dog excel at, is going to somebody who doesn't have the same capabilities that we have. And you have to remember this is a working animal. For our clients, they're an extension of their own body in a way, like a medical device.
Are the dogs expensive?
Paws doesn't charge clients for the dogs, though they cost about 18,000 to 25,000 dollars to raise and train. We rely on volunteers, donations. We're getting a new van for transporting dogs from Pittsburgh's District 7300 Rotary. Fawn is a Green Tree Rotarian, and at our upcoming Dog Walk, the keys will go to Fawn, and Fawn will bring me the keys.
Fawn looks like she's on a break right now.
Fawn doesn't like to shop. When Fawn sees the mall, she's like [yawns and stretches]. But watch this. [Layne throws a penny on the floor, which upon command, Fawn retrieves.] We train the dogs to pick up metal, wood, plastic ... every possible thing that they could hold in their mouth.
Wow, most people can't even pick up pennies.
People ask, "How do you train your dog to do that?" I say, "You weren't listening, this is a female ... she takes money. She'll retrieve purses, wallets, anything." We work in the mall a lot and a lot of people know her ... "There's Fawn, the dog that picks up money." She's used to people throwing money for her ... it's all donations to Paws. If you're at the ATM and she sees your wallet open, she stops and waits.
How much can Fawn make in an afternoon?
One time at Seven Springs, she came back with $700 in 30 minutes. Fawn used to take each bill individually, but now she just scoops it all up.