Tori listens intently as Shaneil Smith reads “Tales from the Bark Side” out loud at Gardner Middle School.
Smith, a sixth-grader, reaches out to pet the dog’s paw and flips the page. Tori’s gaze remains fixed, ears perked. It’s the dog’s job – to listen.
Service dogs, such as Tori, are more than just “man’s best friend.” They go to work every day helping the visually impaired, those in wheelchairs and more.
Tori, a Shih Tzu and Cairn Yorki mix, is disabled herself, partially paralyzed from two ruptured discs. The paralysis and wheelchair didn’t stunt Tori’s outgoing personality at all – in fact, she became even friendlier, according to owner Jana Nicol, of Lansing. A veterinarian recommended Tori become a certified therapy dog, and she passed with ease.
Now Tori spends her days in the PAWS – Personal Attention With Schoolwork – program listening to children read.
“Dogs are nonjudgmental,” Nicol said. “They don’t care if it takes you 15 minutes to read a page.”
Service dogs receive specialized training specific to their jobs. Organizations like Therapy Dogs International, Love on a Leash, Leader Dogs for the Blind and Paws With A Cause each have their own process of training dogs for their jobs. There are 10 guide dog organizations which train dogs for the blind in the U.S. alone, said Rod Haneline, chief programs and services officer at Leader Dogs for the Blind.
“As far as service dog organizations on a whole I couldn’t even begin to tell you how many of those there are,” Haneline said.
Therapy dogs such as Tori are trained to be good listeners that can tolerate lots of attention and sitting still for long periods of time.
Assistance dogs have to be equally good listeners, but their training prepares them to be more on the move.
Jared Talaga’s ability to pick up items and open and closed doors became limited after a snow-skiing accident four years ago left him wheelchair-bound. Charlie, a yellow Labrador, came into his life in May.
Charlie’s tasks include retrieving items off the ground and putting laundry in a basket.
Talaga, 21, spent more than three years after his accident without an assistance dog. Besides the daily mobility help, Charlie’s brought some unexpected benefits.
“It’s easier for people that are unaware of disabilities and how to act around someone with a disability to approach me because there’s a dog there,” Talaga said. “It’s easier for them because it’s just a dog, and then they realize I’m normal, I’m not that much different than them.”
For Nancy Denny, 62, service dogs have been part of her life since her college days. She has been blind since birth and was paired with several dogs for nearly 10 years each. After one had to be put down due to liver cancer, Denny had to wait for her new dog Macy to be trained.
“I was especially aware of what a void was in my life when I didn’t have any dog, and to have her come to me was such a gift,” Denny said.
Macy, another yellow Labrador, joined Denny last fall.
As a volunteer at Ele’s Place and The Listening Ear, Denny has to trust Macy to guide her to the right rooms and steer her around any obstacles.
“I’m a very independent person, but I can completely depend on this dog,” Denny said.
One crucial element of a service dog’s success is the cooperation of the people around them. Some people approach the dog and try to pet it or talk to it without asking Denny’s permission first. In those cases, Denny explains to them the dog is working to guide her and shouldn’t be distracted without her permission.
‘Working is fun’
Keeping other people from treating service dogs like pets can be difficult enough, but the biggest challenge for some handlers can be keeping that same attitude for their relationship.
“Probably the hardest thing is not treating him like a pet,” Talaga said about Charlie.
“It’s really hard to say no to kids, especially because he’s so nice and he likes anyone that will pet him.”
Being a service dog isn’t all work and no fun for dogs like Charlie, Macy and Tori, their owners say. The animals derive their pleasure from helping humans.
“Working is fun to him,” Talaga said. “He gets excited when he works, and when he does something right he gets excited.”
As for the work the handlers have to put into the relationship?
“It’s worth it,” Talaga said
What you need to know about service dogs:
• Do not approach a service dog to pet it or talk to it until you have asked permission from the handler.
• Do not give a service dog commands unless you have spoken with the handler and they have permitted you to do so.
• Never offer food to a service dog. They are sometimes on a veterinarian-prescribed diet.
• For more information about the definition of service animals and their work, go to www.ada.gov/qasrvc.htm.