Tickles waits on disabled master's every command
Paul Marck, Journal Staff Writer
Sarah Ainslie's dog is no ordinary pooch.
Instead, Tagalong Tickles is a valet, grocery shopper, door opener, laundry fetcher and veritable live-in companion and aide.
Tickles has given Ainslie, who uses a wheelchair and has multiple sclerosis, a degree of independence and confidence that she hasn't known for some time.
"She's really amazing," says Ainslie, 56, who was a pastoral counsellor before her condition prevented her from venturing out as much.
"She does all kinds of things. She's particularly helpful around the house."
Tickles, a standard poodle, is a service dog, not unlike those used by sight- or sound-impaired people. Except that Tickles does a wide range of helpful physical tasks. Ainslie has limited arm and hand movements, so Tickles helps her undress, by pulling off socks, slacks and blouses.
"Anyone who comes into the house with stocking feet is in danger of having their socks whipped off," Ainslie says.
Tickles also picks dropped objects off the floor, helps open doors, and by using a laser pointer to guide her to the right object on a shelf, helps with the grocery shopping.
Tickles even recognizes when Ainslie needs her medication -- little physical signals, like slight tremors -- and stops her duties until Ainslie takes her drug dose.
Buying a suitably trained service dog costs up to $30,000, which was out of reach for Ainslie. So three years ago, she and husband Gordon, a retired chartered accountant, got Tickles as an eight-week-old puppy.
Then, through a combination of intuition, books and searching for information over the Internet -- where she didn't find much useful -- Ainslie started the slow process of training Tickles.
"There really are not a lot of service dogs in Canada and very few organizations that train them," she says. Aside from those who assist the blind and deaf, she's only encountered one other such dog in Edmonton. "A lot of people seem unaware of these kinds of dogs."
Tickles obeys a broad range of commands -- 170 by Ainslie's count. They all stem from about a dozen voice and hand commands, and Tickles is constantly adapting and learning. "She is always developing new things that I need to keep up with."
The key thing that Tickles has enabled Ainslie with is a new sense of independence and ability to get out of the house, where she's often bedridden up to 19 hours a day.
"I used to have trouble. People would stare ... Now I don't worry about that anymore."
Tickles wears a Please Do Not Pet sign, as do working dogs so as not to be distracted.
But Tickles has a couple of other roles besides caregiver. Ainslie is a member of the Pet Therapy Society of Northern Alberta and once a week, the duo visits Pilgrim's Hospice.
And Tickles is also an athlete. She competes in dog agility trials, with obstacle courses, races and other competitions, similar to horse shows. A demonstration trial last summer was even held at Calgary's famed Spruce Meadows, and Tickles has a tackboard full of ribbons and winning medals from the half-dozen contests she's has entered.
It's a sport for able-bodied people with their dogs and Ainslie attracts
raised eyebrows from her wheelchair on the sidelines, given Tickles' understanding
of commands and her showing in the ring.
© Copyright 2002 Edmonton Journal