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As Ashland native Kayla Fratt leads her border collie Barley around a fishing boat dripping water as it's hauled out a lake, he sniffs at the hull intently.
Fratt in turn watches Barley closely to for a reaction. If Barley's sensitive sniffer detects something amiss, he lets her know by lying down and staring at his quarry.
Barley isn't looking for drugs or explosives — he is looking for something far more difficult to detect: invasive species.
Zebra mussels, Eurasian milfoil and the like are his prey and if he finds it, a quick round of play with a rubber toy rewards him. It's what he lives for.
Barley and handler Fratt are a team from Missoula, Montana-based Working Dogs for Conservation, a non-profit organization that fields teams of dogs and handlers to help with conservation problems, from finding poachers to tracking endangered species without disturbing them. They can even find illegally imported goods such as elephant ivory or rhino horns.
Known by the acronym WD4C, the group has trained more than 200 dogs and handlers in more than 15 countries and a dozen states.
Fratt, 25, grew up in Ashland and graduated from Ashland High School before moving to Missoula. She said she became involved with WD4C because of her deep interest in animals after a youth in 4-H and hobbies like tagging monarch butterflies with her father and raising homing pigeons. At Colorado College in Colorado Springs, she majored in biology, studying field and conservation biology before starting her own dog-training business. She wanted to remain involved in conservation work and found WD4C suited her skills was essentially her dream job.
One of the unusual aspects of WD4C is that it uses rescue
dogs from shelters, where the animals they wind up because they are uniformly obsessive about play and were often too much for a previous owner to deal with. But that play obsession is the very trait that helps handlers train the dogs. The dogs love play so much that they are willing to obey commands to sniff out whatever the handler wants because at the end, they know a play session awaits.
And unlike defense dogs that need to be powerful or tracking dogs like bloodhounds that need specialized noses, WD4C will take just about any breed.
"We aren't picky, as long as the dog wants the job," Fratt said. "Because part of our mission is rescuing these dogs, we are able to take dogs that no one else wants because they are too much to handle. We train them and and cause them to light up and realize that there is something they can do that they are good at, that they enjoy. They really do what dogs were intended to do: to sniff stuff out, using their noses to find stuff."
The dogs can be trained to sniff out the scat of an endangered animal or an invasive species of weed. Finding the scat of endangered kit foxes, for example, allows scientists to discover a wealth of information about DNA, hormone levels, reproductive capacity and other crucial information.
Dogs like Barley sniff out invasive plants and animals with a different goal in mind: halting their spread. Barley and other dogs can work at boat landings where anglers are towing their craft from the water. By alerting to invasives — zebra mussels and plant fragments can be nearly microscopic — teams can help anglers realize the extent of contamination and teach them how to remove it.
Fratt and Barley were at the Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center Friday demonstrating how a conservation dog team operates. She said the demonstration should help persuade the public — and officials — that the dogs can do invaluable work.
"We're hoping that maybe in the future someone in the area will think 'Gee, we could really use a dog to help us find things,'" she said. "A lot of people don't even know this is an option, that it exists."
Scott Caven, the aquatic invasive species coordinator for the Ashland County Land and Water Department, said using dogs to detect invasives was "a new tool in researcher's toolboxes."
State law says anyone who spends time boating or fishing in Wisconsin waters is required to check to see that there are no weeds, mussels or other hitchhikers remaining on their boats.
"But what Kayla is doing is an extra step. By training dogs to sniff for things like zebra mussels, it's another way we can help stop the spread of these invasives," Caven said. "It is something that is up and coming."
Eighty-year-old Rose Lajeunesse —better known as "Rosy P" to her friends — lives quietly in her eastside Ashland home.
She relies on her Social Security to get her through the month, so there isn't a lot of money available for emergency expenses, like the time rainwater started dripping through her roof and into the dining room.
She knew something had to be done fast or her snug little home would suffer irreparable damage. But with her limited income, she didn't know where to turn.
Then she heard about the Ashland Housing Improvement Program, a community-funded effort that provides small grants for homeowners to make modest repairs to their properties.
"The whole roof didn't need to be done, just a small area where some shingles came off," she said. "They came right away and took care of it."
Lajeunesse said applying for the grant was simple and the people involved from the city's planning and development office were "wonderful to work with."
"I don't have to worry anymore," she said.
People like Lajeunesse who own and live in their homes but struggle to keep them up are exactly who the Ashland Housing Improvement Program was designed to help.
The program began in 2015 with a $20,000 donation from an anonymous donor and instructions that the grant be used in small projects that provided the most bang for the buck for homeowners, neighborhoods and the community. The donor also gave $10,000 the following year.
Since then, more than 25 Ashland homeowners have been aided with projects that ranged from providing paint for buildings that badly needed exterior work to covering the cost of garbage bins so owners could take down a failing structure or remove junk and debris from yards.
Christine Luebben, the city's property and maintenance specialist, serves as the HIP coordinator, and she makes a point of including information about the program to anyone who receives a property maintenance letter. Those letters are sent to owners whose properties violate city codes for maintenance and repair.
"We buy the paint locally, we get doors we need or lumber for the projects, it's all bought locally," she said. "That money donated to the program definitely comes back to the community."
Megan McBride, the city's director of planning and development, said the program has always relied on community donations from businesses and people. In addition, the city has provided a couple of grants as well as the staff time needed to make the program work.
The latest of the community grants is a $2,500 donation from Associated Bank of Ashland, made in August, its third annual gift to the HIP program.
Now in its third year, the program is branching out slightly, with McBride considering a donation of paint to Lighthouse Baptist Church and organizing volunteers to use the program's resources to help other non-profits.
"It won't be our typical project by any means but it will still fit into the intent that HIP started with," McBride said. "We want projects that are impactful, helping someone who would either not have the physical or financial means to complete the project otherwise."
McBride said plenty of projects fit this bill, and the limiting factor was only the amount of money available.
"Really, about $2,000 is the maximum-sized project we can do right now, and about six to nine projects per year is our average," she said. "We have a whole queue of projects lined up for next year already."
That demand means McBride will turn to the community this fall and winter to seek more donations.
"The HIP program is by no means the only solution needed to address Ashland's housing issues, but it offers one proactive way to start bring up the safety and quality of properties that most need it," she said.
Those interested in applying for the HIP program or donating to it can contact McBride in the Planning and Development office at Ashland City Hall at 715-682-7041 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
A support group that helps parents who have lost unborn children or infants will hold a remembrance walk and first-ever burial service for those children Wednesday.
Compassionate HEARTS — Helping Empty Arms Recover Through Sharing — began in January at Memorial Medical center to help parents grieve the unbearable The group hold monthly support meetings at MMC and will host a remembrance walk 2 to 2:30 p.m. Wednesday, followed by the burial service at St. Agnes Cemetery.
The service is intended to allow parents to share their pain and provide them the closure of an interment ceremony.
"Parents who have this kind of loss have not had a chance to live out the dreams they have been building up for nine months or longer," said MMC Chaplain Andrew MacGregor. "It's unfulfilled dreams and plans and wishes. It's hard to quantify and qualify that."
It is difficult for family members to get through the overwhelming sorrow, but MacGregor said the Compassionate HEARTS group tries to give comfort where it seems that there is no comfort to be found.
"We seek to provide support and education to families who are grieving," said Karolyn Meinke, a registered nurse at the MMC family birth center.
She said Compassionate HEARTS is the only grief-support group within a 75-mile radius of Ashland. Participation is a calling for MMC staffers who witness firsthand the sorrow that comes with the loss of a child.
"Even in the hospital, we didn't have a bereavement program," she said. "That was something we knew that knew that was needed."
What grew out of that deeply felt need was a commitment to help parents and family members. It led staffers to get the training needed
to operate a bereavement program.
MacGregor said hospital staff has been training to console bereaved family members for more than a year — not just staffers involved with the program, but all staffers.
"We are going to continue to provide training for staff because it is hard to know, even as trained professionals, how to respond to these situations," he said.
MacGregor said all of the services offered through Compassionate HEARTS are completely up to the family.
"We want to support them to have access to their support system. It might involve family, it might involve friends, and it might involve the faith community. We want to honor all those existing supports and strengths," he said.
Meinke said that at least once month, an MMC patient loses a child — each a tragedy that needs to be shared.
"I think a lot of it is that it is so private and so painful to many people," MacGregor said. "Our experience is that people don't know how to talk about it, how to engage it. What we are really trying to do is to provide a safe, supportive confidential way for people to have a space to come and talk about this."