Indiana Canine Assistant Network Aims to Unleash Hope

Writer  /  Heather Chastain    Photographer  /  Liz Kaye

At Community Chiropractic in Hendricks County, hope is being unleashed, as well as chiropractic care.

Community Chiropractic’s owner, Dr. Vicki Danis, is working with an Indiana Canine Assistant Network (ICAN) dog at her business.

ICAN believes dogs can be catalysts for positive change in people’s lives. By building partnerships through the training and placement of assistance dogs, ICAN creates opportunities for at-risk youth, adults and people with disabilities.

Dr. Vicki has been a volunteer with ICAN for three years helping to train assistance dogs for placement.

“These dogs inherently know how to deal with my patients,” Dr. Vicki says. “They just seem to know what they need. They can sense if a person is in physical or emotional pain. Sometimes the dog will just go up and lay their head in the patient’s lap. It’s wonderful. They are just doing their job.”

ICAN’s Furlough Program places dogs with volunteers outside the training facilities and gives them real-world experience for three weeks. The dogs range in age from puppies to 2½ years old.

“The dogs go everywhere with us,” Dr. Vicki says. “The state fair, my niece’s soccer games, church, the grocery story … anywhere the dog will respond well. But at night, when the vest comes off, they just get to be a dog.”

Dr. Vicki integrates the dogs into her family, allowing her daughters, 8 and 5, to play with them when they are not training.

“My girls have played dress up with our dogs before,” Dr. Vicki laughs.

The most important part of training the dogs is teaching them good manners.

“They have to know how to follow our cues and commands,” she says. “We also (as trainers) have to know how to react and redirect as necessary. One time, at Dick’s Sporting Goods, I walked with the dog by a mannequin twice. The third time, she barked at it. She barked at the grey lady in a track suit. No idea why that third time was the time the dog decided she wasn’t okay with the mannequin, but I had to calm her and redirect her away from the situation.”

Part of teaching a dog good manners includes not allowing them to rush up and greet someone or to sniff them. Dr. Vicki says it can also be difficult for her patients to understand they can’t rush up to the dog.

“It’s all part of the training process. You have to understand proper training etiquette,” Dr. Vicki explains. “You can’t touch a working dog without permission. You can look, but don’t touch. The dog is working. You may not know what the dog is training for, especially if you don’t see a person in a wheelchair. We train dogs to help those with PTSD, cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injuries, diabetic emergencies and other things that don’t necessarily have a wheelchair or other physical component.”

In the past three years, Dr. Vicki estimates she has furloughed 15 to 17 dogs. The dogs are typically Labrador retrievers, lab mixes and golden retrievers. Dr. Vicki says it’s been a wonderful experience, and it’s one her daughters enjoy as well.

“They are always looking forward to the new dog, so they are never too sad when we have to say goodbye,” she says. “We do prepare them. We have a countdown so they know what to expect.”

Once the furlough program is over, Dr. Vicki and her girls get to see the dogs one last time, which happens at ICAN’s twice-a-year graduation ceremonies.

“We really enjoy getting to see who our dogs were paired with,” she says.

ICAN Executive Director Jillian Miller has been with ICAN since its inception in 2002. She said she still gets emotional when a dog graduates and is paired with a family.

“It’s a beautiful and amazing opportunity,” she says. “To see someone who has waited two to three years to be placed with their dog … it’s my favorite part.”

In the past six years, more than 150 dogs have graduated from ICAN.

Unfortunately, not all dogs graduate.

“Not all dogs are meant to be assistant dogs,” Dr. Vicki says. “One of our former dogs, Patsy, is now in Arizona with her family. She started to show early signs of hip dysplasia and was unable to graduate the program.”

ICAN is the only accredited service dog training program in Indiana.

The pups are currently trained at the Indianapolis Woman’s Prison, Pendleton Correctional Facility and the Correctional Industrial Facility, where specially selected offender/handlers are responsible for their care and training.

The intensive training takes about two years, Miller says, and by the time training is over a dog will know 80 to 90 different cues.

Miller said it costs $26,000 to raise one dog and give lifetime support to ICAN’s clients.

ICAN relies on public donations, corporate sponsors and grants to fund their program.

You can donate to ICAN by visiting its website

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