So doggone popular: Dogs being trained around Perham to help veterans, elderly

Meet with Jessica Honer and you don't just meet Jessica Honer. You meet with Honer and one of the dogs she is training at any given time. She says people just associate her with the dogs now, and if she doesn't have one with her the first questio...

Pet therapy dog, Zoe, makes her rounds at Perham Living. (Kim Brasel/FOCUS).

Meet with Jessica Honer and you don't just meet Jessica Honer. You meet with Honer and one of the dogs she is training at any given time. She says people just associate her with the dogs now, and if she doesn't have one with her the first question she is asked isn't, "how are you?" It's, "where's your dog?"

"People are used to seeing me with a dog around town, but sometimes I just need to get groceries, I can't always have a dog with me," she says with a laugh.

Honer understands the fascination. She must, she has six dogs of her own at home, plus the puppy she's currently training for the Patriot Assistance Dog program. And, since she also fosters dogs, that number can fluctuate up at any given moment. Ask her about the time it was up to 10 dogs. Yes, ten.

Honer started with the Patriot Assistance Dogs (PAD) program in 2011 when she was working at Lucky Dog Boarding and Training in Detroit Lakes. She was already fostering dogs with different organizations like the Marshmallow Foundation, so she suggested to the owner that she would like to foster, but the owner said she thought Honer would be good at fostering and training.

"So I kinda just fell into it. The first dog I got was Mason. He was a German Shepherd and he was one of the first dogs in the program. Right away, I just liked it."


She grew up around animals and has experience training horses, and she feels she has some natural instincts when it comes to training animals.

The PAD program provides highly trained, certified psychiatric service dogs to qualified U.S. military veterans.

She is training her 14th dog, another German Shepherd, named Nala. Her comfort level with having the dogs with her at all times is obvious as she is able to carry on a conversation, nonchalantly lean over to Nala in the middle of a conversation if the pup is whimpering, give her a quick command, "hush," which Nala immediately obeys. Tell her good "hush," then come right back to the conversation without missing a beat.

Honer says what she enjoys about the program is everything.

"It's second nature to me now, I love how every dog is different, and they each have their own unique personality," she says. "It's neat to see how they grow and catch onto what is needed from them."

The dogs come to her from a variety of places, some are rescue dogs, others are from reputable breeders, and others come from people who have reached out to her through Facebook.

Sometimes people ask what happens to the dogs who don't pass the program, Honer says they get adopted out or go on to do therapy work.

People have said to her the hardest part must be giving them up. "I can easily give them up because they aren't meant to be with me, they are meant to serve a greater purpose."


When she gets to see the dogs serving that purpose, she says it makes her realize how much of a privilege it is to be apart of this program.

"I was coming out of Mall of America, and I saw Bella. I called her 'Bella Big Ears', she was one I rescued off of Facebook. Since the dog was working I didn't want to interrupt, but the wife came up to me and said, 'Thank you. Bella, saved my husband's life.' His wife pushed him to get a dog because of the issues he was having. It's amazing to see what these dogs can do."


When Honer started working at Perham Living it just so happened that the residents had been asking for another pet therapy dog, so Honer was asked if she would be willing to train a dog. She felt her dog Zoe had the good therapy dog vibe, so she took her through the Canine Good Citizen program to get certified and now she goes to work everyday with Honer.

"She almost needs her own social calendar," Honer says. "Its worked out really well. It is good therapy for the residents. She really only uses my office when she needs a nap."

Honer says research proves that contact with pets on a regular basis has been shown to improve cognitive functioning, balance emotional concerns and increase feelings of enthusiasm and interest. Numerous studies show pets provide one of the few interventions capable of permanently lifting the atmosphere of nursing homes.

"The feedback that I have seen has been amazing," she said. "The residents and families seem to love Zoe being here. I can hear people from my office calling for her and saying 'hi' to her as she wanders around the nursing home. I see the smiles in residents when they see Zoe and get to spend time with her."

For Honer, the works she does with rescue; fostering and training is rewarding and a labor of love.


"It is amazing to see what it means to everyone to have a dog here again. Along with the service dog training I have done the last six years, I have been able to see what a dog can do to help someone live a better life and take a bad day and make it better or help them through it," Honer says. "If I am able to give that back to someone it means the world to me whether it is a Veteran or a resident in the nursing home, I have seen the difference a dog can make."

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