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Elgin dog trainer makes his television debut on Animal Planet

Matt Covey owner Suburban K-9 ElgWillie lab-mix recently made their televisidebut Animal Planet’s “Beyond Human Help.”

Photo Caption Matt Covey, owner of Suburban K-9 in Elgin, and Willie, a lab-mix, recently made their television debut on Animal Planet’s “Beyond Human Help.”

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Updated: January 15, 2013 6:11AM

It was an unusual sight on a commercial flight, a dog trainer and his canine sitting side by side, buckled in and ready for take-off.

The plane was filled with children, and, at the end of the flight, many passengers complimented the trainer on his furry travel companion. “They told me he behaved better than some of the kids,” said Matt Covey, owner of Suburban K-9 in Elgin. He and Willie, a lab-mix granted celebrity status on the flight, were headed to Florida for a taping of Animal Planet’s new show, “Beyond Human Help.”

The show charters new territory with service dogs, by using the animals to help individuals suffering from a mental illness successfully cope with the symptoms of their disease.

Service dogs have proven effective in helping visually-impaired and physically disabled people, Covey said. But training service dogs to support people with mental illness is new. He is almost certain it has never been done before, but he said it works.

Covey, 30, trained Willie to help Kelsey, a young woman who suffers from Trichotillomania, a type of obsessive compulsive disorder that causes people to compulsively pull their hair. “She is in her early twenties and she’s had it since she was a young child,” Covey said. “Therapy hasn’t been enough to stop it. There’s no real good option. She goes into a trance. She’s not even aware that she’s doing it, and she’ll pull for hours on end.”

The problem with using people to help her is twofold, Covey said. Nobody can be there all the time, like in the middle of the night, and when a person does stop her, she becomes self-conscious about it. “People don’t ever think their dogs are judging them and they’re there 24/7,” he said.

Covey trained Willie to understand what hair pulling looks like. As soon as Kelsey takes both hands and pulls her hair, he jumps up and interrupts her.

Two months after the show taped, Covey received a picture of Kelsey and he could see that her hair was already growing back. She made it two months without pulling her hair once, because Willie stopped her every time, he said. Before the show, the longest she went without a relapse was, at most, a week.

Covey hopes insurance companies realize that service dogs are effective in treating patients with mental illness and start providing coverage for it. The canines cost between $10,000 and $20,000, he said.

“Even though $15,000 sounds like a lot of money, think about what counseling costs,” Covey said. “Kelsey is in her early 20s. It doesn’t go away. Imagine going to counseling for your whole life and having to live with it.”

The producers of “Beyond Human Help” found Covey after searching the Internet and calling around the Chicago area for recommendations.

He knew he could train Willie, a dog he rescued from the West Suburban Humane Society. He just wasn’t sure it would happen in the brief, two-month deadline the producers gave him. But he did it, even though service dogs are typically trained for 18 months.

The show aired in November, but it wasn’t supposed to debut until spring, Covey said. Audiences were given a preview of it because another show was cancelled and it filled the void.

“Beyond Human Help” will officially begin its run this spring on Animal Planet. If it airs for a full season, Covey will be the show’s head trainer, working with a different dog and a new client each week.

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