Man’s best friend serves as the eyes, ears, arms and legs of its handler
Imagine living with the knowledge you are gradually losing your sight. That is what Bradenton’s Ruth Anne Rood faces.
Born with degenerative myopia—extreme nearsightedness—her vision got progressively worse. As a child, lens implants and surgeries helped, but by the time Ruth Anne was in her mid-40s, she had virtually lost sight in both eyes.
She was declared legally blind 11 years ago.
“I had a companion dog for a while, but he wasn’t really trained to help me get around,” says Ruth Anne, who applied for a guide dog in June 2015. “After my other dog died, that’s when I applied to Southeastern Guide Dogs.”
The approval process included home visits, reference checks, forms from both her eye doctor and her primary care physician, and a refresher course in how to use a white cane.
“I had to prove that I could use a cane, but once I got Brook, my goldador (a golden retriever/labrador retriever mix), I had to throw the cane away and rely on her totally,” Ruth Anne says.
Ruth Anne is one of many people whose lives are richer because they rely on their service dogs to be their eyes, ears, arms and legs.
Organizations such as Guide Dogs of America and Canine Companions for Independence specialize in training service dogs.
By law, a service animal is a canine—or, in some cases, a miniature horse—that has been trained to assist people with seeing, hearing or other physiological or mental challenges.
True service dogs have undergone extensive training to assist their human partners. The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits a person with a service dog from being denied access to a public place.
“There are big differences in service dogs and therapy dogs,” says Martha Johnson with Canine Companions for Independence, which has six regional training centers across the United States, including one in Orlando. “Service dogs are working animals that are trained to perform specific tasks for their human handlers that the handlers cannot do on their own.”
Dogs and humans have a long, intertwined history.
“Dogs have always lived among humans to the benefit of both species, and they co-evolved together over thousands of years,” says Melissa Faye Greene, author of the just-released “The Underdogs: Children, Dogs and the Power of Unconditional Love,” which explores the relationships of humans and canines. “There’s an ancient biological link, and science is proving that happy hormones are released by dogs like they are in humans.”
Melissa says 21st century studies have shown that when a dog and a person sit next to each other, their hearts begin to beat in sync.
“The whole miracle of cross-species friendship is amazing,” she says.
Canine Companions has a breeding program with golden retrievers and Labrador retrievers, producing full-blooded dogs and crossed breeds.
“These animals, because of their size and their personalities, are the most receptive to training and very adaptable,” says Nancy Sawhney, who serves on the national board of directors for Canine Companions. “You can just see in their eyes how eager they are to please people. And even with their size, they are very loving and affectionate.”
From the time they are born, service animals are groomed for a life of service. They spend the first 14 to 16 months in the homes of trained volunteers to become socialized, learn basic commands and how to be calm in a wide range of situations.
Eric Peterson has been a puppy raiser for Canine Companions for nearly 14 years.
“The puppies come to us at about 8 weeks old, and it’s always so incredible to see how eager they are to learn, with their little tails wagging,” Eric says. “From the very day he arrives, he’s right there with me all the time, going to work, the grocery store, the airport, to the mall and movies, to family events and other activities.”
The pup wears a bright-colored vest identifying him as a service dog in training.
“This is one of the most fun parts because people come up to us, pet him and love on him,” Eric says. “It’s a perfect introduction to educate people about the amazing partnership between these dogs and their future handlers, plus it helps the dog become accustomed to being out in public.”
Eric’s latest charge is Artemis, a retriever/lab mix.
At nearly 1 year old, the dog has mastered nearly 30 commands, accompanied the family to restaurants, shopping and on vacations. He has learned to have his teeth brushed regularly and his toenails trimmed without wiggling, and to stay focused on the task at hand.
“From the very beginning, we’ve worked with Artemis by cradling him in our arms, turning him over on his back, rubbing his stomach and playing with his paws so that he’s comfortable, submissive and non-aggressive,” Eric says. “You’ll never see a service dog engage with another animal, even if it’s a larger dog that comes up to sniff it. He’s trained to lie down and to stay focused on his handler’s needs. Alpha dogs are not suitable as service dogs.”
Artemis has become a member of the Peterson family, at first wiggling, licking and nuzzling his way into their hearts, much like any family pet. But Eric knows the day is coming for the pup to move on to his next phase at a training facility.
“It’s one of the hardest things to deliver him to the training campus after all the time he’s spent with us,” Eric says. “It’s like a child leaving home for college, but by the time he is around 18 months old, he’s ready.
“We won’t see him again until his ‘doggie college’ is complete and he’s been matched with a handler, but he will remember us. I’ve seen it happen with every puppy we raised. At graduation, even though he hasn’t seen us in six months, his ears will perk up when he hears my voice, but he’ll mind his handler until she releases him. Then he’s all over us.”
At Canine Companion’s regional training facility, Artemis and dogs like him will receive as much as six months of specialized training with a professional. He will learn to respond to specific commands, such as “drink,” which signals him to fetch a bottle of water for his handler, and “light,” which prompts him to turn on a light switch.
Depending on the dog’s temperament and strengths, he may become a hearing dog or a service animal to assist a wheelchair-bound person. Professionals constantly evaluate the dog’s abilities to make sure he will be able to perform his duties consistently for the six to eight years of his working life.
“Realistically, some wash out during puppy training or ‘doggie college,’ as I call their time at the training campus,” Eric says. “If a dog doesn’t make the grade as a service animal, he is either trained as a therapy dog or adopted out to one of the many able-bodied people who are screened to be pet owners. As well-behaved and loveable as these dogs are, it’s very easy to match them with a suitable family.”
Handler candidates patiently wait for a call.
“Sometimes, the wait can be as long as two to three years to find the right dog for the right person,” says Nancy. “Once the dog is ready, candidates are brought in to meet their potential teammates and spend two weeks one-on-one training with a professional to solidify their relationship and suitability.”
Graduation day is emotional as puppy raisers and their families return to see the dogs and their new handlers before they go to their new homes.
For Eric, it is a bittersweet time.
“I’m so proud of the puppies we’ve raised that go on to make a difference in someone’s life,” he says. “I always tear up as I see them leave for their new lives, but I know that’s what they’re trained for, and I’m just proud for the small part I played in it.”
Many organizations provide service dogs at no charge, although the financial and time investment can be several thousand dollars and months of volunteer time to raise the puppies. Once matched, handlers agree to pay for all food and medical care for the canine partner while in their care.
When the dog retires from working—usually at age 9 or 10—the handler has the option to keep the dog as a pet. If the handler turns the dog back to Canine Companions, the puppy raiser is offered the chance to adopt him. Otherwise, the dog becomes a pet for one of the approved people on the organization’s waiting list.
Nancy and her husband, Ramesh, opted to keep her second dog, Union, once he retired from service.
“He lived with us, even after I received my next dog, Becky,” Nancy says. “They became fast friends.
“Union was a true blessing to our family, and we were happy to have him for the rest of his days. He was such a part of our family and our lives.”
Ruth Anne’s husband, Robert, died in March, so Brook will be an even more vital part of her life.
“I have many friends, but they won’t be with me 24/7 like Brook is,” she says. “Life has been a lot more lonely as a widow, but I’m so grateful for Brook, who accepts me unconditionally and always seems to sense what I need. She helps motivate me to get out of the house and be around people. Frankly, I don’t know what I would do without her, especially now.”