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Assistance dogs are trained to help

Special to the Gazette

If it takes love to train a dog how to fetch and heel, it takes a whole heart to train them to become assistance animals.

International Assistance Dog Week begins Sunday, meaning it's a special time of year at Williamsburg outpost of Saint Francis Service Dogs.

Their animals can help people with disabilities by retrieving food and medicine from refrigerators, assisting with laundry, turning on and off lights, pressing elevator buttons, calling for help and sometimes detecting seizures before they happen, said development coordinator Nan Strader.

Strader, who heads the group's efforts here, said a part of her job is drumming up support and awareness of these dogs, especially as the need for them grows. Just this year, there are more than 10 pending applications for service dogs in the Peninsula area, Strader said. Saint Francis places 10 to 15 dogs per year in Virginia, including locations within a three-hour radius of its Roanoke headquarters, but the group aim to eventually bump that number up to 25.

The preparation and training that goes into every assistance dog is paramount. To start, Strader said the organization chooses puppies from breeds known for high intelligence, like Labrador retrievers or mixes. They then screen the parents for temperament. From eight weeks to 2 years old, the young dogs are carefully molded to follow more than 50 commands, and come with exhaustive handbooks when they're matched to a person in need.

Even though each service dog costs about $25,000 to raise and train, Saint Francis absorbs the price and provides the animals free to men and women who qualify for one. The organization also continues to make home visits and recertify its dogs throughout each animal's partnership.

Meet Ekko

One of those trained dog brings joy to patients at the Riverside Rehabilitation Institute.

Ekko, a Labrador retriever mix who's been at the facility for almost seven years, incorporates comfort with therapy at the commands of her handler, Nicole Little.

Little, a recreational therapist, said Ekko can be a tool to strengthen patients who are trying to regain function in their arms, legs or hands. Walking with people, retrieving bean bags patients throw and playing the mild-mannered pet are just a few of Ekko's methods. Little said that by positioning Ekko on a stroke victim's weaker side, she can have patients practice using that arm and hand to pet the dog. It gets people moving and puts them in a good mood, since they don't think of the activity as work.

"It's much more fun to pay attention to a dog over here than reaching for an item like a cone," Little said.

Wendy Bunting, the facility's therapy director, said even Ekko's seasonal outfits can help people heal.

"If they're working on their fine motor skills they can brush her, they can help switch out her leash and her bandana," said Bunting. "People are so excited just to get to play with the dog that they don't necessarily recognize that what we're asking them to do with the dog works towards the goals they have."

One patient who is particularly besotted with Ekko credited her with a newfound commitment to socialization.

Renita Scott, who lost most of the function on her right side after she suffered from an unidentified neurological illness, said when she came to the rehabilitation center, low morale impeded her treatments.

"All I wanted to do was sit in my room and feel sorry for myself," Scott said. "And I did, until I met her."

After learning to come out and look for Ekko in the facility, Scott started to open herself to interactions with other patients and physicians. After about three weeks there, Scott can stand, walk with assistance, lift her right arm, move her fingers on that hand and control both sides of her face to smile at Ekko and her new friends.

Bunting takes Ekko home at night and considers herself the dog's "home mom" to Little's position as "work mom." She said one of the most difficult jobs for her team was getting Ekko to relax.

"Sometimes patients just want to pet her. They just want her to be a dog for them. And she didn't understand that at first, because she's working and she thinks she needs to actively be doing something," Bunting said. "So we taught her 'easy,' which she knows means 'I am to lay completely down and put my head down and just lay there.' But she struggled, because that's still a task, and she's waiting to be released from 'easy.'"

Little said Ekko can tell whether or not she's on duty. With the simple command of "get dressed" in the morning, she's in her vest and ready to go. She even misses it when she's home, Strader said. Bunting attested that when Ekko gets bored on the weekends, she'll sit in front of one of Bunting's family members and maintain eye contact until they give her a task. Bunting's son likes to let Ekko clean his room, carrying his socks and clothes from the floor to a waiting laundry basket. It's one of the services she would have been ready to provide if she had been matched to a person, instead of the institute.

Strader said assistance dogs can even make people with disabilities more comfortable in public, since most people automatically focus on the dogs in vests, not what makes their handlers different.

Moving forward, Strader said Saint Francis is always looking for more puppies and new avenues to spread awareness about their programs. She said they also welcome donations, as the organization operates completely off of private grants and fundraising events.

Williams can be reached by phone at 804-824-8289. 

More information

Saintfrancisdogs.org

203-233-8769

International Assistance Dog Week - Aug. 6-12 

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