Service Dogs: WAGS

For Neighbors
by Jeanna Olson


YOU’LL FIND THEM PADDING THROUGH LIBRARIES AND CLINICS, they handle fence seats near the dugout at a Mallards game with aplomb, and have the work ethic of Cal Ripken Jr.—they’re Wisconsin Academy for Graduate Service Dogs.
WAGS have been training and matching dogs and people with mobility issues such as multiple sclerosis or cerebral palsy, for 20 years. They’ve placed 100 dogs in that time, which include yearlong follow-ups. The briefest encounter with a graduate or pup in training reveals them to be the Gallant to the average dog’s Goofus.
“We want them raised around cats, rabbits, rats, other dogs,” says Kelly O’Ferrell, program director.
Do you remember what happened the last time your dog was around a rabbit?
“The deal is, you get them when they’re young,” says trainer Monica Messina as she looks down at the furry little angel at her feet. “You try to get them at two months.”
“This is his temperament, when they chose him, they evaluated the puppies,” she says about the cream colored golden retriever named Echo. “He could walk right up to a garbage truck and he doesn’t even flinch.”



Service and home helpmate dogs are what they place most often, but clinical therapy and family service dogs are trained at the eastside facility as well. All four types, service dogs, family service dogs, home helpmate, and clinical therapy dogs have similar skills.
“Our dogs do a lot of retrieving, so they retrieve dropped or out of reach items,” says Sarah Sirios, executive director. “They can operate light switches, they can open and close doors.”
“They can help tug someone up from a chair, they can help tug off articles of clothing, so the types of skills they do are the same, but for a dog to go in public and have public access, it has to be a very specific type of dog,” says Sirios.
The trainers only work with Labrador and golden retrievers.
For dogs that have public access, the service and family service dogs, remaining self-controlled and unflappable is essential.


Bella, alert, aware and mellow

A blazing golden retriever named Bella shows off her skills in the training room by picking up her new owner’s cell phone. Her demeanor is completely different from Echo’s, but she’s a highly skilled professional like all the other WAGS, and ready to start college with owner Tyler this fall.
“Not all dogs make it,” says O’Ferrell of the hopeful canines in training. “So one of our categories is to be released as a pet dog.”
If you want more information on WAGS, visit their website at, call them at 608-250-WAGS (9247), or email them at