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These paws are made for helping

There is a unique kind of compassion that resides in people who train service dogs. They normally acquire the pups as young as seven weeks, spend one to three years training them, keeping them close and making them a part of their human family. When graduation day arrives, the trainers let go and the dogs they have molded and formed to provide help to others go on to do their job.

Two women in Hudson, Cathy Diaz and Marie Heikkila, have been following this routine for the last several years and both are currently training dogs for Helping Paws Service Dogs.

Hemi is the third dog Diaz has trained for Helping Paws, a service dog agency in Hopkins, Minn.

Heikkila has trained four Labrador retrievers for Leader Dogs for the Blind from Rochester, Mich., all of them for a year, and is currently near the end of training her fifth dog, a golden retriever named Dozer, for Helping Paws.

"I wanted to do more of the training myself," said Heikkila, who met Diaz in a local coffee shop when they were both socializing their dogs.

Heikkila and her husband, Dave, visited a class at Helping Paws and decided it was the next step for her. When Dozer was ready, at seven weeks, he moved into the Heikkila household. Today, he has been matched with a graduate, someone who has qualified for a service dog and graduated from the Helping Paws training program. The recipient and the dog undergo a three-week training period while the dog remains with the trainer.

For the trainers, graduation is a bittersweet moment, one they know is inevitable.

"It is up to the graduate whether or not they want to remain in contact with the trainer," said Diaz, whose previous dogs are located in Rochester and the Twin Cities metro area.

Members of the public can recognize service dogs in training because they always wear a blue vest. People in public must always ask permission to interact with the dog and should not be surprised if the trainer declines the request. A large part of the training requires that the dog stays focused on the trainer and ignores people even if they reach out and touch them.

"Dozer goes everywhere -- church, shopping and restaurants are just a few of the places," said Heikkila.

"Hudson has come a long way in recognizing service dogs," said Diaz. "In the beginning, I got a lot of 'you can't be in here.'" As a result, Diaz spent a lot of time explaining to businesses what she was doing and why service dogs were allowed in their establishments. Today, nearly six years later, Diaz and Heikkila have high praise for Hudson.

Hemi is still in training while Dozer will soon be moving on.

"We have really enjoyed it. It's been lots of fun, and Dave has been very supportive," said Heikkila of her training with Dozer. "The family has to be consistent. We love doing it."

All of the training is done using positive reinforcement, praise and a clicker.

The Heikkilas are on board for receiving another Helping Paws puppy when one is available so they can start the process of giving someone else a helping paw all over again.

Being a trainer is not the only way to help. One Hudson woman is credited with sponsoring Dozer and partially sponsoring Hemi. For more information about Helping Paws Service Dogs, visit