MADISON (WKOW) — Every day at WKOW, we are greeted by a very special member of our team, Boomer, a service dog in training.
He’s in the Wisconsin Academy for Graduate Service Dogs.
His trainer is Jesi Hartman.
“People stop by and ask to greet and it’s really great practice for us as well,” she said.
Fueled by her love for dogs, Jesi started volunteering for WAGS eight years ago.
“The dogs are placed with someone with a physical disability, so we teach them all sorts of skills to help somebody,” she says. “Most people are in a wheelchair, so we teach them how to turn light switches on and off, open doors, push handicap buttons give credit cards to cashiers, help tug clothing on or off or zippers.”
Aaron Backer is the Executive Director of WAGS.
He says, “You have a dog all the time. You’re responsible for training it, watching its behaviors, it’s a 24 hour volunteer job.”
Add that up and Jesi’s put in more than 50,000 volunteer hours.
“What I really value about the program is their commitment to the dogs and the people.”
She’s trained 10 dogs and they go everywhere with her, which also means they become part of the family to Jesi and her husband Justin.
“He’s always a great support and he really loves watching me help through the organization and being part of it as well.”
The hard part, is saying goodbye at the end of the year-long training.
“It’s tough, but I know it’s what I came to accomplish and so while it might be heartbreaking, it’s also heartwarming to know that this is what I wanted to do.”
The dogs that graduate are placed for service, others are released to loving homes.
“It was the best feeling I’ve ever experienced. To see this dog that I had worked with, be at the side of somebody else who needed help and I just can’t even explain it, it brought tears to my eyes.”
Those sentiments are shared by so many Jesi has impacted.
“She’s probably had a hand in 20 to 25 dogs,” says Aaron. “That’s 20 to 25 people that have been impacted, increasing their independence, opening them up socially to do a lot of amazing things in the community with their dogs.”
Jesi is so passionate about the organization, she also helps with fundraisers and runs the WAGS Facebook page and website, helping to spread the word about a vital service.
“Seeing the match of those personalities and what they can do together, what they can accomplish together, how they make each other feel, is always wonderful to see,” she says.