Owner-trained service dog provides aid, love to Columbia woman

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COLUMBIA - A service dog in Columbia is working with his owner to help her live her life to the fullest. 

Maryanne Van Buskirk and her service dog Levi attend the Columbia Farmer's Market together every weekend, rain or shine. Levi is able to focus on both Van Buskirk, and the treats he is given by the many vendors at the market. 

One vendor, Kaye Nilges, said the pair work well together. 

"He knows to be patient, and he knows when she tells him to sit, he sits. Cooperation there on both ends, you know. He's as good for her as she is for him I think."

Van Buskirk is no stranger to dogs, she's been training them for more than 40 years as a volunteer trainer, and with the help of another trainer friend, taught her first service dog Hanna.  She also trained Levi, her second service dog, to serve as a mobility and medical alert dog.

Van Buskirk suffers from extreme allergies and struggles to maintain her blood sugar. She has been brought back to life twice after two severe medical emergencies.

Levi can detect changes in Van Buskirk's scent and help notify her of a problem before it worsens. Levi has also been trained to retrieve an EpiPen stored in his backpack and deliver it to his owner.

Van Buskirk said there are benefits to training your own service dog. Getting a service dog from a training school can be an expensive process, and there can be anywhere from a one to five year wait for a service dog. The dog's training may also not be tailored to the owner's specific needs. 

Van Buskirk said there are several different factors that go into training a service dog, including the dog's breed and personality. Human factors, like the owner's patience, can play a role in successful training as well. 

"You do not want to use harsh words with your dog, hit your dog, do anything that's a negative in training with a service dog, because that dog has to want to do and to love doing," Van Buskirk said. 

She stressed that mutual appreciation is most important in training and owning a service dog.

"You have to treat them with respect, and they have to treat you with respect"

Van Buskirk is expecting to receive a puppy named Micah, which she will train to replace Levi, now seven years old.