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Family Pets Taking On Service Animal Duties


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After she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis last spring, Laura Shepler lost her balance and ended up on the floor at least once a week.

Once she tripped over her cane and crashed to the floor, cracking her fingers and tearing muscles in her shoulder.

Now, she has a furry means of support always by her side. Her service dog, Pumpkin, used to be a family pet. Now, the 3-year-old golden retriever helps make Shepler’s life easier by picking up items and using her body and the harness she wears to keep Shepler steady.

Shepler even hopes to find another job as a school administrator — with Pumpkin.

“She can do so much more for me than a cane does,” Shepler said.

Each week, Shepler, 43, drives more than an hour from her home in Wernersville, Pa., where she lives with Pumpkin, her husband, and her 4-year-old daughter, to her service dog training class in Frazer, Pa.

About 12 million adults in the United States need assistance with everyday tasks such as walking, carrying a bag of groceries or opening a door, according to a 2012 report by the Census Bureau.

And the percentage of people needing help is increasing. For people with disabilities, having a service dog can mean independence.

But the wait for a trained service dog can be long, said Toni Eames, president of the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners, which provides resources for people with guide, hearing and service dogs. “Sometimes you can wait up to three to five years to get a dog from a program,” she said.

Many people, such as Shepler, can’t afford to wait. So they train their own service dogs, and can reap the benefits while doing it.

Teach the basics

In training classes such as those offered by the nonprofits Main Line Deputy Dog in Frazer, Pa. and United Disabilities Services in Lancaster, Pa. owners can teach their dogs the basics, such as how to ignore distractions or lie calmly under a table during dinner at a restaurant.

The dogs learn how to turn lights on and off by pressing a button on the floor with their paws. They can learn to remind their owners to take their medication, or to interrupt destructive behaviors, such as self-harm.

They learn tasks for specific needs associated with multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, cerebral palsy and other conditions. They can aid the elderly, and veterans with post-traumatic stress can train service dogs to wake them from nightmares and to create space in a crowd when they feel overwhelmed.

The dogs can learn tasks as simple as closing doors for people who have difficulty doing it themselves.

Luke Smith, 27, of Norristown, Pa. was in a car accident in 2012 that left him paralyzed from the chest down. His pet 8-month-old American pit bull terrier puppy, Shaka, recently learned to shut doors. Smith has been going to classes to train Shaka for the last few months.

“The more I do it, the more I see how much he can do for me,” Smith said. “Him picking up stuff for me is the biggest help in the world.”

Trainers generally do not choose pit bulls to be service dogs, but Smith and Shaka are excelling at the training. “We’re going to show everybody,” Smith said.

When Mark Stieber, executive director of Main Line Deputy Dog, retired from his marketing job a few years ago, he wanted to use his lifelong love of dogs to help people, he said.

As he developed the class, he visited Top Dog, a nonprofit in Arizona that has been helping people train their own service dogs for more than 25 years.

‘A long way’

Stieber said he was hopeful that a few of the dogs in the class would be ready in the summer to go out into the world without the “in training” label on their vests.

The 14 dogs in the class are taught by Mary Remer, an internationally renowned trainer, at her What a Good Dog training facility, with help from volunteers. “They’ve all come a long way,” Stieber said.

Getting through a service dog training program isn’t easy, and not everyone is willing to invest the time to do it, said Lori Breece, who manages training programs for United Disabilities Services. Over the last six years, a dozen dogs have been in the two-year class for owners training their own dogs, but only two have made it through.

For Bryan Anderson of Trevose, Pa., training his 14-month-old Rottweiler, Rosie, gives him a reason to get up in the morning. Anderson hurt his back and neck in a car accident a few years ago, and the general contractor had to stop working. He became depressed. The dog was a gift from his wife, Norma, who thought the pet could help.

Anderson’s fingers are numb, so he drops things all the time, including his cane, he said. Rosie picks that up, along with dropped pill bottles, paper and Anderson’s cellphone. The next step is having her retrieve the phone when it rings.

And when Rosie’s harness arrives, Anderson hopes to get rid of the hated cane that his wife and doctor make him use. The 47-year-old said the cane makes him feel “like an old person.”

Fewer stares

And when you have a service dog instead of a cane, Anderson said, people stare less. “They don’t know something’s wrong with you,” he said.

Laura Shepler has mostly stopped using the cane that tripped her. Since starting training in late June, Pumpkin has learned how to brace herself to help Shepler walk.

While Shepler was on a train recently on her way to a doctor’s appointment, she went to get food from the cafe car, with Pumpkin steadying her as the train rocked back and forth. “I never would have made it safely without her,” said Shepler, who would have had to ignore her hunger and thirst during the six-hour trip. “I wouldn’t have had the courage to even try.”

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Comments (5 Responses)

  1. jackie says:

    i could read articles like this all day long- extolling the virtues of animals !! thank you so very much to all involved, the dogs, the animal guardians who need help, the trainers, the author of the article- could this “movement” spread across the country & eliminate ( or at least cut down ) unnecessary “shelter” euthanasia ?? for pets awaiting their (undeserved) fate of death, simply for lack of homes, and people needing help sooner rather then later, this idea needs to be spread to the masses- yes, the process is still lengthy, but there are so many folks who ( I believe ) would contribute what they could to help both animal & person. can this story be put on newscasts, & television advertising ? – are there any savvy PR people out there to help ? only when it is illustrated how animals can help society can their future be made a little brighter- not all people “get” that all of us have value & purpose – animals and people, both disabled -( be it physically or mentally ) – and able bodied- where is Bob Dylan when we need the answers to “blow in the wind” ?

  2. Kelly M says:

    I don’t think people stare less at a service dog than at a cane. They do in fact know something is wrong with you if you have a service dog since only disabled people can legally take a service dog into public places like grocery stores or restaurants. When I go out with my service dog, sometimes strangers ask me what’s wrong with me. I also have people stare, point, bark at the dog, meow at the dog, and sometimes people have followed me through a store looking at my dog.

  3. Becky says:

    It is disappointing that adults would bark and meow at your dog while he is working. We need to educate these folks. It is natural that a child would have questions when seeing a dog in a restaurant or store. When a child (or ill-informed adult) comments, politely explain “This dog is working now as my assistant. She cannot be distracted from her work. She really is a lot of fun when she is off duty, and would love to play with you, but right now she must use all of her special skills to do her job.” As people with disabilities, it is our job to educate the less informed; it is self-advocacy. We have come a long way, with a long way left to go.

  4. Jennifer says:

    As a parent of a young woman who has had a service dog for 8 years, I can say that I really don’t think it has cut down on folks staring. I can say that the interactions that she has had with others in the public has been of a much more positive nature since she has had her dog. Being a wheelchair user just comes with an attention factor, having a miracle dog by your side just makes that attention tend towards the more friendly open and positive as the dog becomes a natural ice breaker. Not everyone has a chair but most everyone loves a dog and is facinated by how smart service animals are….

  5. lynn marie says:

    Here in Massachusetts we have programs where prisoners keep a dog with them 24/7 and train them to be service,dog..we also have shelter dogs given to vets with PTSD with a trainer with the goal of immersing the vet back into the community.All are win-win situations.As nurse I can’t tell you how many patients want their dogs to come visit is very emotional to watch.Also how excited patients in LTC enjoy the volunteers who bring in dogs to visit..Thank God we are finally starting to recognise how useful this connection is between humans and their dogs..even cats(for comfort)..I myself had my own dog trained to stay by me if I fall..or get my purse with my medication..Plus I benefit from all that unconditional love..what could be better?

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