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These puppies give a new leash on life:
PawsAbilities benefit for service-dog program offers disabled new possibilities
By Susan Jurgelski / New Era Staff
Lancaster New Era
Published: Feb 22, 2008 13:57 EST
At just 11 weeks old, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Midge can give a high-five.
Her older "sister," 14-month-old Rossi, can open doors, turn light switches on and off, pull a wheelchair and alert family members to the oven timer.
She can also pick up quarters and $1 bills with her mouth — without swallowing them — and return them to whoever dropped them.
Perhaps, at least in the puppy world.
Cream-colored Labrador retrievers Midge and Rossi are service dogs in training through the Harrisburg-based Susquehanna Service Dogs, a nonprofit program of Keystone Children and Family Services that provides dogs for people with physical, emotional and hearing impairments.
Rossi and Midge's "parents," Lancaster "puppy raisers" Peter and Betsy Smith, join a handful of SSD county volunteers and more than 150 statewide.
They hope their canine kids will eventually give the disabled a new leash on life.
"People say these dogs change their lives, and even save lives," says Mrs. Smith, tearfully recalling the story of a service dog pressing a life-alert button for a woman who had a seizure.
Since 1993, SSD has placed more than 150 dogs, literally opening doors — physically and emotionally — for recipients.
Yellow Lab Abraham is both helper and companion for Heidi Gunkle, of Elizabethtown, who has lupus, has had a series of strokes and is partially blind.
"He's like a little butler for me," says Gunkle, who has even written a children's book about her dog, "The Dog With Too Much Hair."
"He pulls my laundry basket from room to room, gets my water bottles and my medicine bag, helps me balance when I walk and pulls my wheelchair. He comforts me when I don't feel well."
Each dog recipient — who also undergoes intensive training — is asked to pay a fee of $5,000, but scholarships can reduce the cost to around $500.
The cost to train and place a service or hearing dog is $19,000 — $14,000 of which is defrayed through donations. SSD pays for veterinary bills, harnesses and licensing, but trainers cover dog food and costs to attend trainings. The Smiths, for example, have already logged 6,500 miles.
But for puppy raisers, it's worth the toil and travel.
"Seeing what these animals can do to enrich someone's life, it's like, wow," says Karen Johnston, of Liverpool, PawsAbilities coordinator and longtime puppy raiser. "I can't even begin to understand the animal/human interaction and how much love and dedication these animals give to people."
Dog training takes about a year and a half, and dogs generally "retire" around age 9 or 10. Follow-up training and annual certification are provided.
"With their dogs, people feel they can face the world," Johnston says.
Not all dogs make the grade.
Peter Smith says about two-thirds to three-quarters don't meet the requirements.
"It's an interesting combination of temperament, friendliness and calmness, and also being able to work under stress," he says.
Canines that do not meet the rigorous criteria are placed as family pets or in the Keystone Therapy Dog program.
Rossi, for instance, will probably remain with the Smiths for use as a therapy dog and in demonstrations to area schools and community groups.
"She's just a little too easily intimidated by loud noises and strange situations," Smith says. "It's hard to get that right dog."
For Smith, a busy radiologist, training therapeutic dogs is good therapy and rewarding.
"It's relaxing for me," says Smith, who spends up to an hour daily training the dogs. "It helps me take my mind off the demands of my job."
His wife, a mother of two college-aged children and a retired pharmacist and Lancaster Country Day School office employee, focuses mostly on socialization, walks and demonstrations.
After the couple lost their longtime family dog, a standard poodle, about a year ago, Mrs. Smith told her family she never wanted another dog. She also initially refused a request to train service dogs.
"My kids said I'd last about six months," she says. "Six months later, we were applying to get Rossi. With the kids in college, it just seemed to be the right time.
"Isn't it funny? It's something I said we'd never do, and now we love it."
Rossi and Midge tune into Smith with an intensity that's not easily diverted.
Smith can even place treats on the top of Rossi's paws, and under command, she will ignore them.
He relies on positive reinforcement, including well-timed treats and a training clicker. Consistency is key, he says.
Lots of love is also part of the training regimen — a love that breeds devotion for both dog and trainer.
"I get teary-eyed when I think about giving (the dogs) up, but it's like your kids," says Mrs. Smith. "You raise them to grow up and be independent and productive.
"This is a nice way to give back."
For Your Information
- 12th annual PawsAbilities, a Susquehanna Service Dog fundraiser
- 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, >March 8 and 9
- Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex & Expo Center, Cameron and Maclay streets, Harrisburg
- Obedience and agility events will be featured, as well as training demonstrations, games and dog-related product vendors.
- Through March 3, tickets are $8; $4 for ages 4 to 12. Tickets at the door are $10; $5 for ages 4 to 12.
- Go to www.keystonehumanservices.org/ssd; call 671-7813 or 599-5920; or e-mail kjohnston @ keystonehumanservices.org or vlagaza @ keystonehumanservices.org.