Animal Planet’s mission is to present projects of passion, and they are delivering upon that promise with their new series “Rescue Dog to Super Dog.” The show features dog trainers Nate Schoemer and Laura London working with a variety of individuals in need of service dogs. They visit shelters to find the perfect match, and then they begin training the animal to be able to provide the specific type of support each person needs.
“I think both of these populations — people who are disabled and shelter dogs — are marginalized and a little without voice, so I think bringing them together empowers both of them and shines a light on both groups,” London tells Variety. “The heart of the show is undeniable, and I think when people watch it, whether or not they have a disability, it’s going to speak to them.”
Over the course of the season of “Rescue Dog to Super Dog,” London and Schoemer work with 12 individuals, from former marine Kalani Cruetzburg who suffers from PTSD and depression, to Diana Theobald, who lost a leg in an accident and also suffers depression. Each person London and Schoemer work with have unique needs and hopes for what a dog can give them. Cruetzburg really needed an animal that would force him to get him up and out of the house every day, for example, while Theobald was looking for one that could help with physical tasks, like shutting off lights she forgot about at the end of the day, after she had already removed her prosthetic leg. But each dog is trained according to the same principles.
“We would work with each dog as much as that dog was capable of working but stopping when the dog was still very, very invested in the training so it’s still building the drive to want to continue to work,” Schoemer says. “There’s an analogy that another trainer told me, but I think it’s great and I use it all the time: when you’re first working with a dog, you’re a vending machine. Every time they put that dollar in they are getting their bag of chips or whatever. But you have to transition to a slot machine. It has to become, ‘Maybe I’ll win.’ And they’re working because they might get a reward.”
Each episode follows London and Schoemer as they get to know the individual client, including what kind of dog he or she wants. Though some do have their hearts set on a certain breed, Schoemer stresses the importance of being flexible. After all, what is more important than what a dog looks like is how it will react to the person and his or her specific needs. “If you’re the kind of person who likes to sit on the couch and read, you shouldn’t get a Jack Russell, who are very high energy dogs,” Schoemer says.
London and Schoemer visit shelters to find a dog that fits the right size and temperament for the recipient — a process which may take minutes on-screen but can take months in the real world. “It’s really important to be patient and do your research,” Schoemer says.
London agrees, adding that those with special needs can’t expect to find the dream dog at the first shelter he or she visits or the first day looking. “There are a lot of rescue groups and resources now to help you, but it takes time and work,” she says.
Patience and being willing to put in the work are key — not only for finding the right dog — but throughout the training process as well. Over the course of the show, London and Schoemer introduce the dogs and their new owners early on so they can bond, but also so they can develop a regimen. The dogs spend a few weeks at a boot camp where they learn obedience and other core behaviors, but once they are placed in the home, it is up to the owners to reinforce the good behaviors and further teach the special tasks.
“It’s not just a matter of him doing tricks. It’s a matter of me doing my part, as well,” Cruetzburg says of his service dog, Bas. “It truly is a partnership. He’ll regress if I don’t constantly positively reinforce the behavior.”
Service dogs perform do everything from sitting next to their owners when they sense sadness, in order to provide emotional support, to fetching phones when they ring in homes with a deaf inhabitant, to dragging laundry baskets from room to room for someone who cannot lift large objects. They become invaluable parts of one’s life.
Theobald initially thought she’d mostly rely on her service dog, Morrison, to re-adapt to the physical surroundings of her apartment after the loss of her leg. But it’s not just physical support that Morrison provides. “I just didn’t expect the effect that Morrison has had on getting me up and out of the house and letting me laugh again and getting me to talk to people,” Theobald says. “There was a lot about life that I was letting fall by the wayside because I thought I was too tired or too destroyed, but focusing so much on training him and now living my life with him, I’ve started to forget that I’m even disabled.”
And for Cruetzburg, who was used to having a fellow soldier to his right and left who he would put before himself when in active duty, Bas fills a void he felt when he transitioned to civilian life.
“There are things we are accustomed to in the service that we no longer have when we are out, and once we’re out a lot of times we are lost. We don’t have a mission; we don’t have our brothers and sisters by our side,” Cruetzburg says. “But Bas gives me a mission because I have to train him, I have to take him for walks, I have to take him to the dog park.”
Cruetzburg adds that Bas gives him unconditional love and also teaches him “to be patient, to be calm, and not to take life so seriously,” all things he has struggled with as someone who still holds himself accountable for traumas he and his fellow soldiers experienced.
While “Rescue Dog To Super Dog” does focus a portion of each episode on showing off a unique task the service dog learns to perform to better its owner’s life, it is the less flashy ways the dogs enrich the owners’ lives that Schoemer thinks — or at least hopes — will stick in viewers’ minds the most.
“It’s going to inspire people to get out there and do things, and maybe some lives will be saved,” Schoemer says.
“Rescue Dog to Super Dog” premieres on Animal Planet August 12 at 10pm.