K9 Elite Academy trains service dogs for those in need

Ty Thompson
Press Argus-Courier
Claire and Goose demonstrate a deep pressure therapy task. This used to calm people with anxiety.

Mental health and the need for a service dog led Claire McCullar towards a passion for training dogs. Claire and Melissa McCullar devote their time at K9 Elite Academy in Mulberry to train service dogs for different needs. 

Claire was diagnosed at an early age with post traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and attention deficit disorder. Her mother, Melissa, was able to get her a job grooming animals in Mountainburg, and Claire realized how comfortable she was with animals. 

Claire asked her mother if she could get a service dog that could help her with anxiety when she needed it. 

"I didn't know what that would consist of," said Melissa. "So I did some research and found a trainer in Joplin, Missouri."

Melissa explained how the trainer from Joplin, Tim Franks, knew exactly what Claire was going through, and what Melissa herself was going through as her mother. Claire was able to get Cricket, a white poodle, who was trained as a PTSD service dog. 

Goose, Claire's service dog, following orders from Claire.

Unfortunately, Cricket wasn't able to handle the school environment. Another dog, Goose, who is a chocolate lab, was brought in for Claire. 

"He didn't care about anything. He was just so easy going," Melissa said. 

Claire helped train both Cricket and Goose with Franks, and through that experience, she knew that this was what she wanted to do. She began training and became a certified dog trainer at age 15. 

"So then we wanted to take it to the next step," Melissa said. 

She explained that when Claire needed a service dog they had to sell a vehicle just to afford it. Service dogs are not covered by any insurance and are typically paid for out of pocket. 

In October of 2020, they opened K9 Elite Training in Mulberry to help others and train service dogs. They specialize in service animals and obedience training. PTSD service dogs, diabetic service dogs, autistic service dogs, and seizure service dogs are all part of what they provide.

The dogs are taught service tasks depending on the needs of the owner. The first eight months of a dog's training is obedience. They currently have four that are in training. 

"Once the obedience is imprinted that's when we begin the task work," Melissa said. 

Task work for a service animal is the specific thing that the dog needs to learn to better help its owner. This can include deep pressure therapy that helps owners with anxiety, keeping their owners from hurting themselves in the event of a seizure, and even alert their owners of low blood sugar. 

The list of actions that a service dog can perform is incredibly extensive. Claire and Melissa make sure their client's dogs are taught specific actions unique to the owner. 

They also train therapy dogs who are taken into hospitals, nursing homes, or schools. Service dogs differ from emotional support animals, which only provide therapeutic support through companionship and are not allowed in places like airplanes or stores.

Service animals can go wherever their owner goes, and have more rights than an emotional support animal. 

"A service dog is all four feet on the floor," Melissa said. "They're not in a buggy, sometimes they can be in a papoose with a diabetic owner to detect their blood sugar, but that is the only exception."

She explained that service dogs are essentially medical devices. You have to be prescribed a service animal and must have a reason. 

"That's something I want to stress," Melissa said. "Not everyone needs a service dog."

Since Claire has had a service dog, she has not had the need for medication and has improved mentally. K9 Elite Academy is located at 120 N. Main St. in Mulberry and can be contacted at 479-312-6549. They offer either a six-week, in-home or in-shop training as well as a four week board and train option.