From service dog to therapy dog: Jackson’s new purpose with HABIC

emily oltmanns and her dog jackson together on the csu campus
Social Work senior Emily Oltmanns and her dog Jackson volunteer as a human-animal interaction therapy team with Human-Animal Bond in Colorado (HABIC), a center in CSU’s School of Social Work.

In his career as a service dog, Jackson flunked out of school. Following 19 months of preparation for an advanced service training program, the black Labrador Retriever was released after just four months. The professionals working with the large group of dogs in training felt Jackson was better suited to living the pet life.

jackson with group of dogs in training at canine companions for independence
After being raised by Oltmanns, Jackson briefly returned to CCI to join an advanced class with other service dogs in training.

“He even had a roommate–a yellow lab named Kenai—and I received his report card every month,” said Emily Oltmanns, Jackson’s owner. Oltmanns is a senior majoring in social work at Colorado State University.

During those first 19 months, Oltmanns had raised and trained Jackson from a puppy for Canine Companions for Independence, an organization that provides service dogs at no cost to individuals.

Therapy dogs provide assistance to many with one handler

A service dog is an assistance dog for one individual. They are trained for the person’s specific needs, such as mobility limitations, hearing loss or deafness, visual impairment, or autism. The ADA covers public access for service dogs while they are working.

“I worked with Jackson to socialize him, teach him 30 commands, love him, and pay for any expenses he needed,” Oltmanns said. “Jackson was a challenge, although that just made me love him even more.”

emily and jackson together during a training class with human-animal bond in colorado
Volunteer human-animal teams spend six weeks in classes with Human-Animal Bond in Colorado. Following training in obedience and human-animal therapy roles, teams are evaluated individually for HABIC certification.

“Once he was home,” said Oltmanns, “I kept thinking, how we could put his two years of training and incredible demeanor to use?” She found the answer through Human-Animal Bond in Colorado (HABIC), a center in Colorado State University’s School of Social Work. Oltmanns and Jackson officially became a HABIC-certified animal therapy team in 2018.

A therapy dog works with numerous people, and one handler or owner, in a variety of situations. The dog’s obedience training allows him to safely provide affection and comfort to people in hospitals, nursing homes, schools, and other similar locations. “Jackson loves to show off his service dog commands at HABIC events, like retrieving keys or holding my phone,” Oltmanns said. “Helping others is just part of his DNA.”

HABIC human-animal teams engage with patients, students, and clients and interact with them. Therapy animals may interact by allowing people to pet them, lying on a patient’s bed, listening to children read, or doing other things to bring comfort and lower stress levels.

The owner or handler is usually the person who makes visitations with the dog. “He may have been born to be a service dog, but Jackson chose to come home and work as a team with me to impact lives together,” said Oltmanns.

Human-animal bond improves lives

jackson at four months old wearing his service dog vest
Oltmanns received Jackson as a puppy to be raised and trained as a service dog, but Jackson had other ideas.

“I got Jackson when he was 8 weeks old,” Oltmanns said. “Growing up, my family never had dogs. It was my dream to have one. He was my constant buddy and went everywhere with me. From airplane rides, to college classes, to grocery shopping, he was there with me through it all.”

Oltmanns never gave up on Jackson. “After all of our hard work, he didn’t become an assistance dog, but I knew we were meant to be together,” said Oltmanns. “Through HABIC, he can carry out his purpose with less pressure.”

Jackson wearing his HABIC bandanna and holding his leash in his mouth
Today Jackson enjoys life and his job as a therapy dog after being reunited with Oltmanns.

While the line between service and therapy animal can appear blurry to some, it comes into focus through the lens of the relationship between this dedicated owner and her dog, who share a bond and the ability to improve the lives of many others in need with HABIC.

About Human-Animal Bond in Colorado

Founded in 1993, Human-Animal Bond in Colorado (HABIC) is a center in the School of Social Work, part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences. HABIC’S mission is to improve the quality of life for people of all ages through the therapeutic use of companion animals, with particular focus in the areas of community outreach, teaching, and research.