For nearly 10 years, Candy Muscari-Erdos and her staff at Mountain High Service Dogs have been training and matching service dogs to veterans and children in Colorado and across the world.
A former vet assistant with decades of training experience, Muscari-Erdos teaches canines lifesaving tactics through bond-building, training them in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, epilepsy, cystic fibrosis and anaphylactic allergy response.
“The bonding of the animal and client comes first, before we do anything else,” she said. “We want every dog and their owner to have that, ‘You’re my world and I’m supposed to be with you’ effect.”
By establishing mutual trust, the goal is for the service dog to protect out of love not fear, and for clients to continue with the training, Muscari-Erdos said, adding there will be homework and it will be a lifestyle change.
“You have to refresh the animal’s memory by playing box games or hide and seek,” she said. “The dogs think it’s a game when, in reality, they’re lifesaving actions. And the dogs have fun doing it.”
MHSD trains its dogs and handlers through Bond-Based Choice Teaching, which centers on teamwork and developing a close connection — as opposed to “old school” ways that tend to be more forceful and mean, Muscari-Erdos said.
“You need to form a bond and then work with the natural ability of the dog,” she said. “You love each other and it’s almost a dance in some ways. People seem to like the training, and it’s incorporated in their everyday life.”
For PTSD, dogs are taught to block their owners, get on their laps or paw the 911 button on their medical alerts. For seizures, service dogs are trained to alert a family member or lie on the person having the attack to prevent them from banging their head, sleep-walking or falling off a bed, Muscari-Erdos said.
“It’s a natural talent the dogs have,” she said.
Her service dog, Nathanael, a 6-year-old German Shepherd, has a response time of 45 minutes prior to a seizure. Her staff member Cindy Purdue’s dog, Sadie, has a response time of three hours prior to a seizure. She’s a 7-year-old German Shepherd.
“A lot of times when you have a disability, you put it off because you’ve been through it so much,” Muscari-Erdos said. “By the time you take care of it, it’s either full-blown or you’ve got another major problem. So that’s what these dogs do for us — they let us know before it goes too far, and we can stop it.”
German Shepherds are sharp but not for everyone, Muscari-Erdos said. “You have to learn how to think ahead of them because they’re constantly thinking.”
Within the past two years, the business has “exploded exponentially,” Muscari-Erdos said. MHSD has provided 58 service dogs, placing 12 this year and currently training 17.
And the business doesn’t pay for advertising, according to Purdue. “Our business is based on word-of-mouth and from our website,” she said. “Another form of advertising for us is taking our dogs out in public. We can’t go anywhere without being stopped by four or five people who want to ask questions or pet the dogs.”
About 80 percent of the business is in Colorado; its international customers live in Canada and Switzerland.
“And we do quite a bit in Colorado Springs,” she said. “All of the military bases here know us. We have one dog at Peterson, one at the Air Force Academy and had two at Fort Carson.”
The cost for veterans to receive a MHSD dog is $10,000 and for all other clients $13,500.
“We partner with a few organizations that help veterans with the cost,” Muscari-Erdos said.
Clients make a deposit and pay off the balance within two years in monthly installments.
“The idea is that by the time the dog has completed all of its testing with their handler, the payments are done,” Muscari-Erdos said. “But unfortunately the business’ biggest challenge is getting clients to stay on top of their payments. I understand income can be tight, but I also need to make sure I’m able to pay the company’s bills.”
Most of the dogs acquired through the program are rescues from Albuquerque, N.M. They’re primarily Labrador and Golden Retriever mixes, shepherd mixes as well as pure shepherds.
“I know a shelter director in New Mexico who I can email if I’m looking for something specific,” Muscari-Erdos said. The matching process with a service dog and its handler can take up to six months, and training can last one year to 16 months.
Training a puppy can take up to 24 months and is why MHSD typically acquires dogs at least a year old, Muscari-Erdos said.
“Dogs for autistic children tend to take a bit longer,” she added. “I may do four weeks of the same thing because they may need more repetition before they catch on.”
MHSD is waiting on its first litter of shepherd puppies and plans to breed more.
“I want to breed more on my own and at this point know what questions to ask regarding lineage, history and testing,” Muscari-Erdos said. “You have to do your research because people will breed for money and not for the standards of the breeds.”
The business has also added a new dog trainer with volunteers interested in fostering dogs in training.
“We’re finding that the dogs do better coming out of a foster situation because they’ve already been with a family and will most likely be going to another, ” Purdue said.
A lot of hours and emotion go into the business, Muscari-Erdos said.
“But when you get that report from a mom like I did a week ago, of a girl with PTSD, saying her daughter is smiling more, starting to get off medication and is eating better because she wants to be around to take care of the dog you provided her, it’s very rewarding and makes you feel like you’re doing something right.”
Mountain High Service Dogs
Address: Box 721, Palmer Lake
440-8282 or email@example.com