melanie and pepper

Service animals are trained to perform a task directly related to a person’s disability. One Pioneer School District employee has been using a service dog, Pepper, for several months as both navigate a new environment.

Melanie Korzeniewski has been the Assistant Director of Special Education since October. Ms. Korzeniewski, formerly a professional development coordinator with C-A BOCES, also had an 11-year military career.

Pepper, a two-year-old Siberian Husky, is Ms. Korzeniewski’s first service dog. Pepper is not only Ms. Korzeniewski’s constant companion but also comes to work at Pioneer High School each day and shares her office. Pepper is there for Ms. Korzeniewski’s emotional and physical well-being.

While it is commonplace to see therapy dogs in Pioneer’s hallways and classrooms, their purpose is much different than a service dog.

“A service dog is unlike a therapy dog in that it is assigned to an individual,” Ms. Korzeniewski said. “Pepper went through extensive training to become a service dog. She is task-trained for one person, and that’s why we ask that she not be petted or otherwise interact with others.”

Pepper wears a vest on the job with multiple warnings that request people to respect that she is working. This is for the dog’s safety and her owner’s.

Pepper is a psychiatric service dog, meaning that she will alert Ms. Korzeniewski when she perceives her handler’s anxiety, panic attacks, or symptoms of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). She can provide deep-pressure therapy and make her keeper aware of emerging trouble signs.

“She can also create a block in a crowd, if she senses that I need space between me and other people,” Ms. Korzeniewski said.

She added that she has tried “various kinds of PTSD treatment plans for about 12 years. My doctor suggested a service dog, and Pepper has been a world-changer for me.”

Pepper first came to Ms. Korzeniewski as a puppy and started obedience classes soon after. Next came extensive service dog training, after which Pepper started on the job in September 2022.

“The biggest struggle has been people understanding how to interact with us,” Ms. Korzeniewski said. “Many people have yet to learn the difference between a service dog and an emotional support dog or therapy dog. They don’t know that the dog has a job to do.

“People should also know that a service dog is permitted to go anywhere the public is allowed to go, just like any other piece of disability-related equipment,” she added.

So far Ms. Korzeniewski is happy with her decision to take this step in her treatment. “Pepper has been great. She really has helped me get through the days. When we get home I still have energy, whereas before I had no energy because my body was just reacting so much to different things.

“Pepper is with me in all my meetings; most of the time people don’t even know she’s there,” Ms. Korzeniewski said. “When we get home, she gets to be a ‘normal’ dog. When the vest and collar come off and I put her with the other dogs, she has her ‘doggy’ time. She gets to go outside on her lead and run around for a while. She takes a break.”

There is no particular breed that makes a good service dog, nor a certain type of training that fits all. “The dog’s temper- ament is everything, and connection is huge,” Ms. Korzeniewski said. “My connection with Pepper is so strong, and she really wants to please me. Having a dog that is in tune with you, her temperament, and your willingness to train—those are the keys.”

When people see Ms. Korzeniewski and Pepper out and about, they are welcome to say hi to the dog but refrain from approaching or petting her. “Otherwise, it could be interpreted wrong,” Ms. Korzeniewski said. “But we still look forward to meeting everyone and building awareness!”