The bond between a person and his/her service dog is strong and special. They are a unit. They are a team. They are an almost inseparable pair.
But a sad fact is that a dog’s working life is generally only about ten years. The dog may tire more easily, and the tasks may seem more difficult. For the person involved, it’s time to start again despite the fact that their hearts are bonded with their current service animal.
So how does the person get through a transition from one dog to another?
“With great difficulty” would be the very likely response from almost anyone.
In San Clemente resident Mary Hill’s circumstance, it was made slightly easier by the fact that after the transition, Indy, her first service dog, could come back to live with her.
She also received excellent advice from Canine Companions for Independence before starting the transition. They said: “Come with an open mind and an open heart.”
The year was 2015, and she and Indy had been together since 2005.
Hill’s Need for a Service Dog
Mary Hill was teaching middle school in 1985 when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. For five years after her diagnosis, she was able to continue teaching—a job she loved. But as her symptoms became more numerous, full-time work became impossible.
In the early 1990s, her brother in Sacramento suggested she apply for a service dog. She grew up with dogs and liked them, but she wasn’t sure it was what she needed.
By 2001, she saw the wisdom of her brother’s suggestion. She put in an application to Canine Companions for Independence. After a somewhat lengthy application process, she was matched with Indy, a golden Lab mix.
For ten years, Indy served Mary Hill with absolute devotion.
What the Dogs Can do for Hill
Safety, of course, is the number one responsibility of any service dog. Service dogs are trained not to bark unnecessarily in order to save the bark to be an alert.
Mary Hill is always at risk of falling at home or when transitioning into her scooter. Mary Hill’s partner, Richard Leste, is often at home with her, but on occasion, she may be alone. Britt, her new service dog, knows that if Mary falls, the dog is to bark loudly to summon help. (The neighbors are clued in to the fact that this is a signal.)
In addition, Britt is now learning an advanced command that Indy knows: In Mary’s case, the command, “GET HELP,” means that the dog is to fetch a portable phone (always kept in the same spot) and bring it to Mary. (Instructors from Canine Companions also provide in-home advanced instruction for commands that are specifically for that individual.)
On a day-to-day basis, Britt helps with public access doors by pushing the handicap plate, and she is on tap to pick up anything that Mary drops. At home, Mary Hill uses a walker, but stooping to pick something up would be dangerous for her. “In the bathroom, I may drop a towel or my brush, but Britt is right there to pick it up.”
“When out of the house, I also have difficulty reaching across a service counter,” says Hill. “Britt helps here, too. She takes my library card or credit card from me. Then she puts her paws up on the counter to drop the card on the surface so that our transaction can be completed.”
Making the Transition
In 2015 when Mary was accepted into the residential training program to receive a second dog, a representative from Canine Companions offered her further advice: Tough as it would be, Mary was asked to find someone else to take Indy for 3 months. She was told the new dog would do better operating alone at first, and it would be less stressful for Indy.
Mary Hill’s sister lived nearby and could take Indy for the specified time. Then Mary and Richard were able to focus on the selection and training of a new dog. (Partners are included in the training so that they will understand the methodology of the work.)
At first, both Richard and Mary found it very hard to adapt to the
idea that the perfect dog for Mary was not simply a younger black dog like Indy. But they soon fell in love with a golden Lab named Britt, a buttered-toast-colored dog that had the skills Mary needed and was easy for her to work with.
Mary says that when her sister brought Indy home, Indy was puzzled about why the “young whippersnapper” was carrying out all her tasks. Then Indy realized that she was still a part of the family so it was just fine to nap while another dog worked.
The day I met them, Indy served as an eager nonworking dog, who was able to come up and greet me. Britt remained under command until given the release, and then she stepped forward to meet the person whom Indy greeted so warmly.
Two Service Dogs Are Just Fine
Today Mary Hill and Richard Leste (and of course, Indy and Britt) have a very active schedule, much of it focused around volunteering for Canine Companions. The former teacher is often asked to speak to various groups about service dogs. Mary Hill frequently addresses school groups. Recently, the four of them arrived to talk to the attendees of Beaglefest, an event attended by Peanuts collectors. (The Charles Schulz foundation has given generously to Canine Companions for Independence.)
As you see from the photographs, they are all excellent representatives for the cause. Oh, and Mary’s sister has gone on to become a puppy raiser!
If you’d like to read about how the wheelchair was invented, click here.