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Construction begins on Maine training center for service, therapy dogs

Mission Working Dogs' training center is expected to open by this summer

OXFORD, Maine — While serving as a sergeant in the U.S. Army in Korea back in 2006, Christy Gardner suffered devastating injuries, including to her spinal cord. Those Injuries eventually led to her having both of her legs amputated below the knee. The Oxford resident credits her service dog, a golden retriever named Moxie, for helping her regain her independence and get her life back. 

That life-changing partnership is the inspiration behind the nonprofit organization Mission Working Dogs. Gardner and dozens of volunteers help train service and therapy dogs for other Mainers in need. Her dream of establishing a first-of-its-kind training center is now becoming a reality. The center will be located down the road from Gardner's home, which was built last summer by veteran support groups Tunnel to Towers Foundation and A Soldier's Journey Home.

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The new center will have training rooms, an office, a board room, and bunk space for volunteers. The hope is to have the training center, which is the main building on the campus, complete by the summer of 2022. In total, the campus will have nine buildings.

All of the buildings will be wheelchair accessible, which will allow the campus to be internationally accredited. The $1.1 million-dollar campus will feature nine kennels with indoor and outdoor runs and eight cabins — four on each side so people can come and get to know their dogs.

"They will really get that one-on-one bonding time, being full-time with the dog for two straight weeks," Gardner said. 

Moxie, specially trained to put Gardner on the path to independence, came into her life in 2010. 

"She helped with my wheelchair, fetches things that I dropped, she was trained to call 911 on the house phone," Gardner explained.

Being able to live on her own again led to amazing achievements. Gardner is an assistant captain of the U.S. women's sled hockey team, and she started training service dogs and therapy dogs after returning home to Maine.

But Gardner wanted to do more to meet the demand for service dogs from people with physical disabilities and mental health issues such as PTSD. 

She founded Mission Working Dogs shortly after the pandemic hit. A network of about 100 volunteers helps train service and therapy dogs in various locations, from big box hardware stores to sporting events.  

One of those volunteers is Colin Thompson, a freshman at Brunswick High School who is on the autism spectrum. The teen works with one of the dogs in training every week.

"That is so empowering for him as a person. Not receiving services, but as a person who is now working to provide them," Colin's mom, Jennifer Thompson, said. 

Moxie has since been retired from service-dog duties, and Gardner has a new service dog named Indi. In the meantime, Mission Working Dogs needs financial support and supplies to help make the training center a reality. The nonprofit is also recruiting volunteers to help raise puppies for up to a year before they move on to skills training. If you would like more information about donations and volunteer opportunities, click here.

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