I’m going to share a little company secret here: at The Hershey Company, some of my colleagues have four legs.
One day, you might see Hotchee, an 8-year-old black Labrador retriever retrieving a pen for me; or you might witness a 10-month-old pup learning to safely enter and exit an elevator. These assistance dogs are from a Pennsylvania-based non-profit, Susquehanna Service Dogs (SSD), and I’m usually the human at the other end of the leash, telling people about how service dogs provide more abundant and independent lives for children and adults with disabilities.
In the last eight years, we have raised seven puppies, bringing them into the corporate headquarters for exposure to the ever-changing experiences of an office environment. In that time, I can honestly say that my co-workers and I have learned as much from the dogs as the dogs have learned from us, and this experience has enriched Hershey’s inclusive culture.
How I became a volunteer puppy raiser
I became involved with Susquehanna Service Dogs after moving to Hershey from the West Coast about 10 years ago. My husband and I were looking for purposeful ways to connect with the community, and we heard about the work of Susquehanna Service Dogs. The organization, which is part of Keystone Human Services, breeds and trains dogs to assist humans (we call them partners) or facilities with specific needs, whether that’s helping an adult zip their jacket or comforting a child who is testifying in court. Volunteers help with a number of duties, including training the puppies for nearly two years so that they can then be matched with the right person or place. My husband and I were eager to raise these puppies with a purpose.
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When I approached the Chief Diversity Officer at Hershey and asked if I could bring SSD Hotchee — the first puppy we raised with SSD— into the office as part of the training, the immediate answer was yes. Around that time, I became involved with Hershey’s Abilities First Business Resource Group, which advocates for people living with disabilities. Hershey’s has a long-standing partnership with the National Organization on Disability (NOD), and we worked with them to create guidelines to install the service dog program. As part of this endeavor, I met with business leaders— puppy in hand— to talk about the impact service dogs can have on individuals with disabilities. During these meetings, we had open conversations about inclusion and disabilities, which had a ripple effect. People at work— including leaders —started talking more openly about their experiences of living with their disability, like anxiety and depression, which was a game changer.
Dogs doing good
The service dogs that have been raised in the halls of Hershey have gone on to do remarkable things. SSD Hotchee is now an Ambassador Dog. Because he has elbow and hip dysplasia, he wasn’t eligible for placement, so we adopted him, and he is an Ambassador for SSD. We attend events at Hershey and in the community to educate and create awareness of how service dogs support people with disabilities. SSD Brulée works at the Perry County Courthouse to support children and youth who testify in their abuse and neglect cases. SSD Troop is partnered with a gentleman who uses a wheelchair. I had the opportunity to meet the gentleman’s caregiver, who told me how SSD Troop has made a big difference in this man’s life. SSD Toby is a companion dog for his partner who has Down syndrome and loves his family life.
Being a puppy raiser has been an incredible honor for me. I get to train a dog that will help a person live a fuller, more independent life, and I get to educate people about living with disabilities and how others can support them. The most common question I’m asked when I talk about my work with Susquehanna Service Dogs is, “How do you let them go?” My answer is always the same: Although it’s bittersweet and I miss them, I can never miss them more than the people and organizations they serve need them. For this, I am #HersheyProud.
To learn more about Susquehanna Service Dogs, or to become a puppy raiser, yourself, visit Keystone Human Services.
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