Community Connections is a series devoted to the many organizations that Highmark supports and partners with in building stronger, healthier communities. In each post, we’ll get an informative, inside look at a nonprofit’s mission, programs and resources from one of the Highmark professionals who works with these organizations every day.

I have nine pets. To say that I’m an animal lover is a gross understatement! Two of my happy brood are dogs, so I was very excited to visit Susquehanna Service Dogs (SSD) with my co-workers Susan Hubley, Director of Community Affairs, and Lori Clark Robinson, Senior Community Affairs Analyst.

SSD is located on what is basically my dream property, just outside of Harrisburg, PA. The organization recently acquired a 52-acre former horse farm with a beautiful home, outbuildings and pastures that will be converted into a state-of-the-art training facility. The home itself is warm and inviting. We were greeted for our visit by SSD Development Director Kerry Wevodau and Breeze, a dog currently training to become an SSD service dog.

As we toured the facility, and of course played with the dogs, we learned a lot about SSD!

Kerry Wevodau and Breeze

Kerry Wevodau and Breeze, who is training to become an SSD service dog.

What Is Susquehanna Service Dogs?

Susquehanna Service Dogs is a nonprofit organization that raises, trains and places service dogs that help adults and children with disabilities to live more independent lives. Founded in 1993, the agency has placed 240 dogs and has a waiting list of 68 individuals. Dogs have been placed mostly in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and Maryland.

What exactly can a service dog do? They can retrieve items, provide balance, alert their human partners to sounds, and even provide seizure response. SSD trains traditional service dogs, therapy dogs, and facility dogs. In fact, SSD is the first program in the country to place a dog in a courthouse. Courthouse service dogs are used to calm nervous witnesses and help children who are testifying about delicate subjects.

Susquehanna Service Dog puppies playing

SSD service “puppies” living by the old adage: Train hard, play hard.

Facility dogs are also used in classrooms with high-risk students or those with behavioral issues. The dog stays in the classroom and is a calming presence that can often alert teachers to an issue. The dogs can also calm children on a one-on-one basis.

Kerry also told us that SSD’s fastest-growing areas of demand are dogs for veterans and children with autism.

Jodie Ruediger, Jill Snyder and Lori Clark Robinson holding puppies

The puppy-hugging kickoff to SSD’s 2016 Walk for a Healthy Community registration with, left to right, Highmark walk coordinator Jodie Ruediger, and Jill Snyder and Lori Clark Robinson of Community Affairs.

The Life of an SSD Service Dog

Raising a service dog starts with successful breeding. SSD breeds its dogs for a friendly, trainable temperament and disposition. Labrador Retrievers and Golden Retrievers are the go-to breeds. Being Assistance Dog International (ADI) Certified and part of the ADI breeding program allows SSD to expand its blood line through a national pool of ADI-certified partners, which helps to ensure healthy dogs.

Even so, not everyone makes the cut to become a service dog! Dogs that are more assertive are often placed with police departments or the CIA. One of SSD’s dogs serves as personal protection for the King of Jordan.

Lori Clark Robinson and Susan Hubley with Mali

Highmark’s Lori Clark Robinson (left) and Susan Hubley (right) give some love to Mali, a dog in advanced training.

Volunteers assist in the whelping, or birthing, of new puppies and care for them during their first 8 weeks. Then the puppies go to their Puppy Raiser, who takes care of them until they are 14-18 months old. During that time, they are loved, socialized and taught the basic skills of a service dog.

After that, a dog enters advanced training. In this phase, they stay at SSD during the week for intense training to learn the specific skills they’ll need to serve their future partner. The dogs return to their Puppy Raiser on weekends and holidays.

Grantville, SSD dog trainee

Grantville, in training to become an SSD service dog.

After being paired with their human partner, dogs are evaluated at 6 months and then every year. SSD provides ongoing assistance throughout the partnership. Most dogs stay in service for 10 years.

Our tour of SSD was just the beginning of our doggy dalliance. To understand SSD’s work even better, I also got personal stories from a long-time SSD volunteer and from someone whose life has been touched by having a service dog.

Highmark Employee and Puppy Raiser Extraordinaire: Crystal Garman

Crystal Garman, Seifert and Elaine Schwilk

Crystal Garman (right) with SSD service dog Seifert as he’s meeting his partner Elaine Schwilk for the first time.

Crystal Garman is a Documentation Analyst, Knowledge Management Services, at Highmark. She has also been a volunteer with SSD for many years. She has raised 7 service dogs and has whelped 50 puppies. When we talked, her latest litter was still at home with her.

Of the impact her volunteer experience has had on her, Crystal commented, “First and foremost is the relationships you build with people. The clients my dogs go to are an extension of my immediate family.” She adds that, “It’s one of the most special moments we puppy raisers have when we can see our dogs working.”

Regaining Independence With an SSD Service Dog: Greg Traynor

Greg Traynor suffered a spinal cord injury in 1999. As a result he is paralyzed from the waist down. He had always loved Labrador Retrievers, and in fact had to give up his Lab after his accident when he was moved to Georgia for rehabilitation. Once a week at rehab, service dogs would come in to work with the patients. Having those dogs lick his face and keep him company during therapy really brightened his day. Greg knew that when he returned home, he would want a service dog.

With the help of Nala, his first SSD service dog, Greg attended graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh. “We graduated with our masters in rehabilitation counseling,” Greg says with special emphasis. “Nala attended every class with me and gave me so much support. Without her I’m not sure I would have attended class at all.”

Explaining that his service dogs (he’s on his second now) “level the playing field for me,” Greg says he is grateful to everyone who makes the partnership possible, including the Puppy Raisers. “It’s so amazing how caring people are to do that work,” he adds.

Grey Traynor and SSD service dog Misty

Greg Traynor and Misty in Canonsburg, PA. Greg’s brother John is a Sr. Quality Analyst at Highmark.

Today, Greg works part-time at Pitt Rehab helping high school students with learning disabilities to make the transition to college. He now has Misty as his service dog. “Misty is my hands when I need her,” he says. “She is also my confidant and friend. She enables me to be more independent without relying on other people 24 hours per day. When I am sick she stays by my side, not because I make her do that, but because she is my partner.”

SSD service dog Misty

SSD service dog Misty doing what “Retrievers” do!