Citizen Dane: Jesi Hartman WAGS dog after dog

Jesi Hartman’s husband, Justin, had a concern about her interest in becoming a volunteer service dog trainer for WAGS (Wisconsin Academy of Graduate Service Dogs). He didn’t think she could, after spending about 18 months with a service dog, just let go of the animal, but when she saw how much the trained service dogs mean to people with disabilities, it was easier to start the process over again.

For her dedication to this cause, Hartman was selected to be part of IB’s inaugural class of Citizen Dane, which honors greater Madison’s unsung heroes. “I was honestly actually stunned [to hear of the award],” Hartman says. “I definitely didn’t see it coming, and I think it’s a huge honor. It truly means a lot to me, but it’s not just me. It’s a combination of everybody else that’s a part of WAGS — the volunteers and the staff really make it all worthwhile. So, I’m very excited, honored, and humbled.”

Seeking out WAGS

Asked how she became a volunteer trainer for WAGS, Hartman says she sought the organization out. She was looking to do some sort of volunteer work to give back to the community and wanted to get involved in something. She came across WAGS while searching online and thought it would be a great fit to be able to work with a dog and also help people live their lives. Yet when Justin remarked that she would never be able to give up a dog that she had spent many months training, she knew he had a point.

“I knew that it would be difficult but doing it for somebody else would make it worthwhile,” she notes. “I finally got him on board, and I’ve been doing it ever since.”

WAGS volunteers have trained service dogs to serve people with disabilities for more than 30 years, and Hartman, an account executive with WKOW in Madison, is on her 10th canine trainee in Boomer.

For people who work with the dogs and prepare them to serve the disabled, WAGS’ training director works with individual trainers and trainers as a group to keep things on track. The dogs will accompany trainers and the disabled people they eventually serve just about anywhere, including restaurants and grocery stores.

“You don’t have to have any previous knowledge to become a trainer, which is really great,” Hartman notes.

Hartman actually does a little bit of everything for WAGS, including marketing work that is aligned with her professional capabilities. In her case, that includes digital marketing, and Hartman speaks from first-hand knowledge when she says that social media channels like WAGS’ Facebook page have raised awareness for the nonprofit organization. Hartman runs WAGS Facebook page and has taken leadership roles in WAGS special-event fundraisers. In these capacities, she has helped WAGS recruit other volunteer trainers, as well as raise money for the organization.

For a while, it appeared that social media was something that nonprofits were not taking full advantage of. It took some time before they realized how to leverage it. “Previously, there was no posting to the Facebook page at all, and that was one thing I wanted to try and increase. So, we’ve gotten quite a few more ‘likes’ in the past few years, and there certainly has been more interaction and awareness, and more people are sharing what the organization is about and what we do.

“It’s a great, free way to help inform the public about what WAGS is all about, and we have pictures of dogs, so we have the perfect avenue to create awareness.”

Hartman remembers the names of all 10 service dogs she’s worked with, including Opal, her first and forever No. 1 girl, Teal, Wally, Austin, and now Boomer, who is quickly becoming another favorite. What makes them such good companions?

“They are extremely loyal, friendly, and excited to help, and that’s what is really fabulous,” Hartman explains. “We only do positive reinforcement, and they are typically excited to be there and help you. If, every once in a while, there is a dog that isn’t interested in working, they have a ‘career change’ to become a family pet for somebody, but most of the time they enjoy the work.

“They enjoy the frequent interaction with being a service dog, and they let people come out of their shells a little bit, too. If someone is feeling a little bit insecure, they have this dog by their side that makes them feel a little bit more confident about themselves. That’s a big difference, in addition to all the skills they provide.”

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The training commitment is such that Hartman spends more time with the dogs than any human, but she’s still able to let go when the time comes, and no trainer is forbidden from having a dog of their own while they train a service dog. “The dogs are really with me more than anyone else, and you definitely bond with them. There is just no way around that,” she explains. “You fall in love and you create a bond that’s so strong that it’s very difficult to say goodbye, but when I see them being paired with somebody else, and when I see the positive impact that they have on somebody’s life, it’s a life-changing thing.”

If one of her previous dogs comes to a WAGS fundraiser, and she sees it “with their person” and they are both happy, the person typically tells Hartman stories about how wonderful it’s been and how it’s improved his or her life, and it brings Hartmann to tears. It’s a delayed process because the dogs are in the program for a total of two to two-and-a-half years and it’s not about instant gratification, but it’s the best feeling in the world to see that match and see the dog and its person really become a team.

“When I’ve had the chance to see my dogs with their new partner, it’s just incredible, and it makes it all worth it,” she says. “So, while it’s hard to say goodbye — and I cry my eyes out every time, and I’ve done it nine times and it hasn’t gotten any easier — I know what I’m doing it for and that makes it all worth it. Then, I just fall in love with the next dog, and the process keeps repeating itself.”

Service to others

Such are the satisfactions of community service, something Hartman recommends for everyone because being a part of WAGS has absolutely changed her life for the better. Giving back to the community is not only important to her, it’s exceptionally fulfilling, and with so many nonprofits in this area, there are plenty of worthy causes at our fingertips.

“I truly enjoy helping people and being a part of WAGS has given me the opportunity to do that in a big way,” Hartman states. “Additionally, my husband, my family, my co-workers and friends, everybody around me is also positively affected by the work that I do. It’s a lot of work, and it’s time-consuming, but it’s worth it and it’s so much fun. Even when I’m walking through the grocery store with one of my dogs, people are there after work and they are a bit grumpy and just want to get home, and all of the sudden they see the dog that I’m with and they get a big smile on their face.

“So, it actually touches everybody around me, which has been really cool to see. I wasn’t expecting that.”

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