By Loretta Gillespie
The Cullman Times
When people say “It’s a dog’s life,” they usually mean that a dog lives a pretty cushy life, sitting on the porch and waiting for someone to feed them. That’s not nearly the half of it with Hickory Nut Kennel dogs. They are working service dogs, bred and trained to assist and be companion dogs to those who have various medical needs or disabilities.
And they are also pets, companions and to Liz Walls, her “babies.”
“These dogs can be trained to do just about anything,” Liz pointed out. “People are just now finding out the real advantage of having a dog that is trained especially for their particular needs.”
The dogs here at Hickory Nut Kennels, near the Bethsadia community, are mainly British Labrador Retrievers, and yes, there is a distinction there. “There is also an American Lab,” Liz explained. (Fans of Marley & Me will note that Marley was an American Lab).
American Labs might be more gangly and not as broad-chested as their British counterparts.
Music welcomes these puppies into the world. They are lovingly touched and cared for from the very moment they arrive. They are birthed in a child’s swimming pool, complete with carpet and heating pads. Their little paws won’t touch the ground for six weeks. This aids in the prevention of parvo (canine parvovirus), which is a dreaded disease among puppy owners.
The puppies begin training almost as soon as they can be safely handled and spend time away from their mothers. Later, as they mature, the couple exposes the dogs to all types of everyday situations, like crowds, sporting events and crowded city streets where they will have to navigate in traffic.
The brightest and best of each litter are selected for use as companion/service dogs for people with specific needs, like diabetes, heart trouble, stroke victims, people with epilepsy, seizures, autism, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, cancer detection, blindness, asthma, and many, many other diseases or medical issues. The Waldrops’ work qualifies them to train in compliance with the American’s With Disabilities Act (ADA).
“Each situation is different,” said Liz. “For instance, a person with autism might need to be pulled back out of a dangerous situation, so they need a strong dog. Another person might suffer from seizures, and our dogs are trained to detect seizures before they are even five months old, although diabetic dogs might take a little longer.”
One of the Hickory Nut Kennels dogs who now belongs to a family in Arkansas recently alerted by barking incessantly. The family was downstairs at the time and the dog was in the bathroom with their daughter, who has a history of seizures. “She was in the tub at the time the seizure occurred, and if not for the dog, might have drowned,” said Liz.
“There is a great need for all types of service dogs,” she explained, her passion for this subject obvious in her excitement.
Most people know about seeing-eye dogs, which have been around for generations, but Liz is quick to point out that these dogs can be trained for so many more services.
They can even be trained to bring their owners a laundry basket full of clothes. “After the clothes have been folded, we can train the dog to drag the full basket to the point where they are to be stored,” Liz explained. “They are also able to bring a person their medication, get a bottle of water from the refrigerator, retrieve cell phones, keys, and open and close doors on command.”
“We are careful about matching up our dogs with potential owners,” said Liz. Occasionally some dogs even choose their owners, according to some experts in the field.
James Waldrop, owner of Hickory Nut Kennels, has been training dogs for over 32 years. He is well known for the quality of training he provides. A quiet, soft-spoken man, Liz refers to him as the real dog whisperer. Both of his grandfathers trained hunting dogs. He comes from a long line of “dog” people. In other words — he knows his stuff.
Both love all of the dogs, but two of them, Freddy and Candy Bar, who have been here the longest and are permanent pets, are attuned to every movement of their “people.” If James leaves the room even for a minute they stand at attention facing the door where they last saw him. It’s almost incredible or “miraculous” as Liz refers to their intelligence. “God gave them these abilities,” she said. “We just bring it out of them.”
The dogs in their home have the most intelligent, knowing, alert expressions in their eyes that you can imagine. They never jump or whine, they just sit at attention nearby. Their coats gleam with good health. They are like well-behaved children.
In fact, that is just how one owner described his dog, Buster. Ethan Bennett has a three-year-old yellow Lab he bought from Waldrop to hunt with. “I bought him early, he was not what is considered a ‘finished’ dog, so I train him at home and once a month we go to the training sessions provided by Hickory Nut Kennels to continue our training.” Waldrop will keep and continue the dog’s training after purchase, but this includes a boarding fee.
“I work at Blue Dolphin Pools,” said Bennett. “I take him to work with me all the time. People are always commenting about how well trained he is. Actually, he has better manners than most people’s children,” he laughed.
“One reason for that is because we focus on the breeds that do best as companion, service and hunting dogs,” said Liz.
For an in-depth look at why he chose to concentrate on these breeds, Waldrop offers a little history of his dogs. “The original breed of what is now the Labrador retriever was the St. John's Water Dog,” Waldrop said. “Disposition plays a huge part in Waldrop’s choice of breeds. “Labradors are a well-balanced, friendly and versatile breed, adaptable to a wide range of functions as well as making very good pets,” he points out. “As a rule, they are not excessively territorial, pining, insecure, aggressive, destructive, hypersensitive, or other difficult traits which sometimes show up in a variety of other breeds.”
As the name suggests, they are exceptional retrievers. “Labradors intuitively enjoy holding objects and even hands or arms in their mouths, which they can do with great gentleness (a Labrador can carry an egg in its mouth without breaking it). They are also known to have a very “soft” feel to the mouth, as a result of being bred to retrieve game such as waterfowl. They are prone to chewing objects, but they can be trained out of this behavior.”
“Labs have a reputation as a very mellow breed and an excellent family dog (including a good reputation with children of all ages and other animals), but some lines are particularly fast and athletic,” says Waldrop. “Their playfulness and lack of fear may require training and firm handling at times to make sure it does not get out of hand — an uncontrolled adult can be a real handful. Females are usually a little more independent than males.”
“Labs mature at around three years of age,” said Waldrop. “Before that they can have a lot of puppyish energy, often misunderstood as being hyperactive. Because of their energy, leash-training early on is advised to prevent them from pulling when full grown. Labs enjoy retrieving a ball endlessly and other forms of physical activity and require this attention.”
James and Liz start play-training very early. One of the first things they do is to tie a rope with a balled knot on the end to a door handle. “When they are puppies this is just a game, but as they mature, they will use this lesson to open doors for their owners,” said James.
Although they will sometimes bark at noise, especially noise from an unseen source ("alarm barking"), Labs are usually not noisy or territorial. They are mostly very easygoing and trusting with strangers, and because of that are not usually good guard dogs, but this does make them good in crowds where their owners sometimes need to go.”
“The easy temperament of Labs and their ability to learn make them an ideal breed for search and rescue, detection and therapy work,” says Waldrop, who trains dogs for all of these purposes.
Doctors and the medical field haven’t yet come to fully understand why and how these dogs are so successful in their abilities. It’s uncanny….and in Liz’s words, “miraculous.”
Liz believes that the answer lies in the changes in a person’s body chemistry. “They have such an amazing sense of smell,” she said. “It’s a proven fact that dogs can scent cancers of all kinds, sometimes before science can detect it.” Her own dog alerts for her asthma.
Dogs and owners are carefully followed up by the Waldrops. “We meet on the second Sunday of each month to work with the families and the dogs for any additional training that they might need,” Liz explained.
The most important thing about considering a service dog is that this dog will become part of the family. “They need to be with their owners,” stressed Liz. “They want to work, they love it. They are as much a part of the family as anyone else. They just have abilities that other family members don’t possess,” she said.
For more information visit hickorynutkennels.com and at gundogbreeders.com or contact the kennel at 256-347-0303.