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What's Up Magazine

In Dogs we Trust

Aug 22, 2012 12:22PM ● By Anonymous

Across the millennia, the faithfulness, energy, and adaptability of the canine species have been woven into the fabric of mankind. Currently, an estimated 75 million dogs in this country serve as companions and friends. In the last half century, however, Fido has been called upon more and more to perform tasks that go beyond fetching the ball or warming our laps on a winter night. Increasingly, dogs have been trained to safeguard and significantly improve the lives of individuals whose independence has been diminished by disability.

Columbia resident Cindy Patterson awakens each morning to the reassuring presence of her assistance dog, Karlyle. Cindy’s relapsing/remitting MS, with its muscle weakness, balance issues, and tremors, has made daily activities challenging. Karlyle, a silky 72-pound lab/golden retriever mix, now allows Cindy to conserve her strength by closing doors, turning on lights, and opening her refrigerator. Cindy was matched with Karlyle last August by Canine Companions for Independence, an organization that provides “exceptional dogs for exceptional people.” Under the guidance of the nonprofit, Cindy had previously “fostered” five service puppies during their first year, feeding and training them to respond to numerous commands before they were evaluated for placement. By volunteering to “foster,” Cindy reached out, resisting the urge to retreat in response to her condition. “I was looking for a way to be more productive and this was it,” she says. Eventually, she was encouraged to request a service dog of her own, and a partnership was born.

During Cindy’s periods of relapse, Karlyle stays close by, waiting for permission to join her on the recliner or on her bed. “He would rather work or sleep than play, and it suits him just fine to snooze with me all day,” she says. During these relapses, she has found that “his steady presence stops tremors faster than the medication.” Karlyle accompanies Cindy everywhere, and they recently attended a wedding together. “He proudly sported a black bowtie,” she laughs, “because it was a formal wedding.” Karlyle and Cindy are a team, and she is very grateful, “I’ve got a dog that works for me, and he loves it!”

The origin of the dog’s role as official helpmate likely began with its use in aiding the blind. According to the International Guide Dog Federation, man’s reliance on dogs to help the sightless has been documented throughout history, as far back as the excavated ruins of a mural near Pompeii. References to guide dogs appear in literature and art from ancient China to medieval Europe, but the first systematic training of dogs to aid the blind came in Germany after World War I. Hundreds of soldiers returned from that war blinded by mustard gas, and associations in Germany and Switzerland responded by training and issuing guide dogs to those veterans. Dorothy Eustis was one of the German shepherd breeder/providers.

In 1927, a blind American, Morris Frank, wrote to Mrs. Eustis, and she invited him to Switzerland to train with one of her dogs. The following year, Frank returned to the U.S. with his guide dog, Buddy. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Morris’ experience with Buddy led him to found The Seeing Eye, now located in Morristown, New Jersey, and dedicated to one goal: “To enhance the independence, dignity, and self-confidence of blind people.”

Almost 50 years later, Californian Bonita Bergin wondered whether dogs could provide comprehensive service to persons other than the blind; she had the foresight to envision canine assistance in a variety of mobility areas, such as wheelchair pulling and item pick-up. Although many animal organizations were skeptical, she persisted and, in 1975, founded Canine Companions for Independence. She coined the term service dog (SD), researched methods for breeding and training, and concerned herself with all aspects of the field. In 1990, she helped develop federal regulations for the use of assistance dogs contained in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Recent research seems to indicate that canines were physically and psychologically destined to be man’s best friend. Eastern Shore resident Meg Daley Olmert has studied the human- animal connection for several decades. In her book, Made for Each Other: The Biology of the Human-Animal Bond, she expresses awe at the “miraculous leap of faith that changed our world forever” when “wolves stopped stalking us and we took them into our caves.” She writes that the dog-human partnership is most likely cemented by the effects of oxytocin, a hormone released in the brains of both man and canine, which produces feelings of calm, trust, and cooperative social behavior. From a young age, Olmert admits to having had “an extraordinary way with animals,” and she believes that the oxytocin exchange produces “animals that have an extraordinary way with people.”

In 2011, her research lead her to establish the Brookeville, Maryland-based Warrior Canine Connection, which draws on the therapeutic potential of the human-dog alliance. Its slogan, “Serving Humankind for 30,000 Years,” reflects her belief in this ancient bond. At WCC, veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are given the skills to work with and train specially bred pups as service dogs; the trained dogs are then permanently teamed with other veterans who have mobility issues. This double-edged sword wielded on behalf of wounded veterans produces remarkable results. For Warriors with PTSD, the experience of working with the dogs can reestablish lost self-confidence, muting the “fight or flight” response and replacing it with feelings of trust in social interaction. For the Warriors who are then teamed with the dogs, the presence of a SD can restore lost independence and optimism. Olmert says that her research and experience with WCC reflect “a whole new understanding of the physical forces that promote a merging of the minds and hearts between the species.”

Another Eastern Shore resident, Mary Stadelbacher, knows firsthand about the magic of this merge. Years ago, she adopted a stray chocolate lab who had been beaten and abused. Although injured and traumatized, the dog (whom she named Major) “displayed a strong determination, an amazing love of people, and the sweetest heart you could ever imagine.” His spirit inspired her to train with him as a volunteer Search and Rescue team. Unfortunately, she became disabled following a spinal fusion, and had to begin training Major as her personal service dog. Her success with this training lead her to start Shore Service Dogs, a small nonprofit “created to provide second chances for both people and dogs in need of assistance.”

While many SD organizations maintain breeding programs as part of their system (with golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers or a mix preferred because of their docile natures and proven intelligence), Mary’s experience with Major made her determined to work with abandoned or abused animals in creating SD teams. While all such dogs may not be suitable for this role, it can be extremely rewarding, she says, “to see a dog that has been discarded by a previous owner blossom into a self-confident and amazingly helpful working partner.” Assisted by Major and her other SD Sammy, Mary now trains dogs in her home, managing to transcend her disability while transforming the lives of others—both dogs and people. She is proud of the dogs she has trained, who “have such a capacity for more than they were ever expected to be able to do, because they were given a chance to learn from someone who had faith in their abilities.”

Many organizations currently provide service dogs (for free or for a nominal charge), but Bonita Bergin’s brainchild, Canine Companions for Independence (CCI), is the largest assistance dog organization in the world, and has placed more than 3,000 SD teams since it began. Nancy Patterson (no relation to Cindy) is volunteer coordinator for CCI Capital Chapter Maryland and a member of the Disability Commission of Anne Arundel County. Living in Davidsonville and disabled by neurological issues, Nancy is confined to a wheelchair but not confined by it. She is determined to experience an active lifestyle. “I’m out there,” she says. “I do things!” She and her service dog, an 80-pound lab/golden mix named Mahler, have been partners for five years. Carefully matched with Mahler by CCI, Nancy is sometimes amazed by the success of their partnership, “How could I go from never knowing him to having him be the most intense experience I’ve ever had?” she asks.

Photo courtesy of Bark 'n' Bean Annapolis

Nancy operates from a non-motorized wheelchair in order to maintain her residual strength. Mahler is often called upon to pull the chair, open doors, retrieve the remote, and carry in her groceries. On one occasion, after going to the car for each bag, he then went back to pick up the receipt that had fallen to the ground. “I didn’t direct him to do it. Like all other SD teams, we have developed a strong bond,” she says with pride.

And, like all other service dogs, Mahler is there for Nancy in emergencies. When the unusual earthquake occurred last year, he assisted her in exiting the top floor of a building. During a recent tornado warning, she struggled to carry supplies down to the basement. “Mahler,” she relates, “came back up the steps and took everything from me, allowing me to better negotiate.”

Nancy is passionate about the fact that Mahler is her teammate and her partner. “He is not my pet or a furry child,” she insists. (When SD teams are in public, she wishes people would remember that the dogs are working and should not be distracted or petted, however tempting it may be.)

At home beside Nancy, with his four paws in the air and surrounded by his toys, Mahler appears as relaxed and at peace as any normal dog. But when he is called upon, this wonderful animal is ready to provide the instant support that enables Nancy to live a life that otherwise might have been denied her.

“In all ways, he opens doors for me,” she states.

Service dog teams have written a new chapter in the annals of human/canine history. They draw on both the determination of the human spirit and the devotion of the canine heart. From weakness they create strength. From isolation they create productivity. It is a beautiful friendship indeed.