For the past five months, Kim Insley-Morrell has hosted an out-of-town visitor in her Kihei home. He’s the ideal houseguest: He’s smart, polite, helpful—and loves to cuddle. “He wants to be right next to you at all times,” Insley-Morrell said. “It’s the perfect trait for a service dog.”
Last November, Insley-Morrell, a Realtor-Salesperson with Coldwell Banker Island Properties, met Valor, a yellow lab from Australia. The then-eight-week-old puppy had made the nearly 5,000-plus-mile journey to Maui to be raised and trained by Insley-Morrell through the Assistance Dogs of Hawaii program. Assistance Dogs of Hawaii (formerly Hawaii Canines for Independence) is a fully accredited Maui-based nonprofit that provides professionally trained assistance dogs to people in need throughout Hawaii—at no cost. Executive director Mo Maurer and her husband, Will, founded the organization nearly two decades ago, and since then, more than 70 service dogs have graduated from the program.
Valor is Insley-Morrell’s third trainee. “My first dog had a ‘career reassignment,’ as we say…she was not completely suited to be a service dog,” she said. “Four years ago, my second dog, Ranger, graduated and was matched with a wonderful girl in a wheelchair.”
Prior to being matched with their human counterparts, every dog must complete a rigorous training program—which typically takes about two years—and pass health and temperament screenings. “I will have Valor for about 10 months, and after that, he will go back to the training center for more advanced training and to fine-tune his talents,” Insley-Morrell said. “It’s not until he is much older that his match will be made based on his strongest skills.” Once Valor is matched to his human, there will be a number of team training sessions, and once the team graduates, Assistance Dogs of Hawaii will provide follow-up training for the life of the team.
So far, Insley-Morrell says Valor has been a model student. He’s ahead of the game size-wise (he weighs in at 75 pounds at just seven months old) and he’s also a quick study. “He is a smart, easily trainable dog,” she said. “At this time, he knows about 25 commands and he is able to do them 90 percent of the time.”
Apart from basic commands—“sit,” “stay,” “come,” etc.—Valor is swiftly mastering more specific tasks, like retrieving dropped items and opening and closing doors. “The training is focused on setting the dogs up for success,” Insley-Morrell explained. On a daily basis, she said, “I train him to not react to other animals, people, noises and distractions—to be focused on me as the trainer for direction and validation for him to make good choices. As his puppy raiser, I go to weekly classes with Valor, and in between classes, he ‘does life’ with me. Our time together is very purposeful. It is my goal to expose him to a wide variety of social environments.”
And when he’s off the clock? “Valor loves the ocean and we frequent the beach,” she said. “He will go ‘snorkeling,” as I call it, to find an item I have tossed in the ocean.”
In addition to training service dogs to assist children and adults with physical disabilities, Assistance Dogs of Hawaii trains and places highly skilled hospital and courthouse facility dogs. The nonprofit also sponsors several community outreach programs, including a therapy dog team program for nursing homes, hospitals and rehabilitation facilities; a wounded veteran program that pairs assistance dogs with military veterans; and a workplace readiness program that helps high school students with special needs gain work experience before they graduate.
“I know I am very blessed and have so much to be thankful for, so volunteering daily to raise and train a puppy to be of service to someone less fortunate than me brings me joy,” Insley-Morrell said. “It’s a lot of work, but the joy the dog brings to the person who needs him or her is well worth it.”
By Sarah Ruppenthal
The Maui News – April 13, 2019