Eagle Scout candidate builds puppy enrichment playground to help train service dogs
A local teenager’s creation is helping a nonprofit organization provide specially trained dogs for adults and children with disabilities.
As part of his community service project to achieve the rank of Eagle Scout, Matt Ketchen built a 16-by-20 feet puppy enrichment playground for Heartland Service Dogs in Mokena.
The 17-year-old senior at Lincoln-Way East High School said the playground includes training aids to help the puppies at Heartland experience situations they will face in everyday life once they become service dogs. It includes a walking bridge and a box filled with materials different kinds of textures the puppies might encounter with their handlers such as sand, gravel, sewer grates and river rocks.
“I have always been passionate about animals and I found out about Heartland Service Dogs and how they help the community and what they do for veterans and people with disabilities and really how helpful these dogs are,” Ketchen said. “It just became really important to me.”
Heartland trains dogs for adults and children with mobility needs, hearing impairment, diabetes, post-traumatic stress disorder and other conditions.
Operating on donations, fundraising and grants, the dogs after training are placed free of charge with their future partners.
Linda Fox, the founder of Heartland Service Dogs, said once they have a litter of puppies there is a crucial window of opportunity to expose them to a lot of different sites and smells. She said Ketchen’s playground allows the puppies to investigate the world on their own terms so they become comfortable with a variety of experiences.
“Later in their lives as working service dogs this will go a long way in keeping their future partners safe,” she said. “It allows the dogs to keep their minds focused on the job they have to do. Encountering new things is an everyday occurrence to them and we are teaching them how to cope with those things by having this playground here.”
Ketchen began the planning process in January. It took two full days of work in late June to complete the project, with help from friends and fellow scouts.
Ketchen’s father, Jeff Ketchen, said some Eagle Projects are a little more complicated than others, and the puppy playground is one of the most involved he has seen.
“I’m very proud of him for following through and getting it done. He had a good group of friends out there that helped out,” he said. “This enrichment ground is imperative for the early development of the puppies to get them accustomed to different things so that they can behave appropriately when they’re able to become service animals. It is a critical first step for them.”