Feb 22, 2002
Rex Bowman Times-Dispatch Staff
Carol Willoughby's rheumatoid arthritis is so crippling she can't open the door of her refrigerator. Her dog Blake does it for her.
Blake also picks up the ringing telephone, flips on the light switch on the other side of the room and, if Willoughby drops her pen, he picks it up. He also opens doors for her when she travels in her motorized chair. Not bad for a 6-year-old golden retriever.
Leigh Singh, born with cerebral palsy, relies on her Labrador retriever, named Kenda, for help. Kenda opens doors for Singh's purple wheelchair. Kenda also pushes elevator buttons, pays store clerks and brings Singh her clothes in the morning.
Blake and Kenda are service dogs, trained to help the handicapped and those with limited mobility live life a bit easier.
Though Seeing Eye Dogs and guide dogs have helped the blind for decades, service dogs are a fairly recent addition to American culture, appearing in the United States a little more than 20 years ago and remaining an oddity even today, with only several thousand at most in U.S. homes.
That's slowly changing. A growing demand for service dogs prompted Willoughby to found the Saint Francis of Assisi Service Dog Foundation in Roanoke about six years ago. The foundation has trained and placed dogs with handicapped masters in Virginia every year since then, but the number of people who want service dogs still far exceeds the number available.
Willoughby said service dogs could help millions of U.S. residents. That might seem like a high number, but in Virginia alone, according to the 2000 census, 77,333 people have disabilities severe enough to limit their mobility. More than 122,000 Virginians can't fully care for themselves, according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census.
Willoughby and Singh, who have relied on service dogs for more than a decade, said they can no longer imagine life without their adept canine companions.
Without a service dog, "I don't think I would have the same courage, the self-esteem, the belief in myself," said Willoughby, 52, of Roanoke.
"Life without a service dog, it would definitely be a lot harder in terms of wear and tear," said Singh, a 32-year-old free-lance writer and Roanoker. "Small, everyday tasks like reaching for things or picking things up are so much harder with a disability. And with a service dog, your level of motivation goes up. You have somebody else who says, 'Let's get up and do things.'*"
In six years, Willoughby's Saint Francis foundation has grown from what she called a "kitchen table operation" into what is probably Virginia's most organized effort to increase the number of service dogs - a platoon of volunteers who breed, raise and train dogs that eventually end up with handicapped masters.
Several Roanoke area breeders donate puppies, Willoughby said, while fewer than 10 volunteers raise them in their homes for 12 to 14 months. Then a half-dozen volunteer trainers and one paid trainer take over, putting the dogs through rigorous training for another six to 10 months. About half the dogs don't make it.
"They really have to be a special dog," Willoughby said. "Labrador retrievers and golden retrievers seem to be the best breeds for this, though one Australian shepherd worked out. But the dogs, most importantly, have to be obedient and have good manners. They can't bark or beg for food, for instance.
"Then there are more than 100 things the dogs can be taught: get the telephone, turn on the light, push elevator buttons, pull a wheelchair, go for help, pick up things that have been dropped, bring someone a walker or an artificial leg, pull off socks and shoes, open doors."
Willoughby said the foundation has placed five or six service dogs in homes each year for the past five years. Recipients include a blind boy with cerebral palsy; a mother of two who suffers muscle degeneration from cancer treatment; a teacher with multiple sclerosis; and a teen-age boy with muscular dystrophy.
Though feeding, housing and training the dogs can be expensive - trainers can receive up to $3,000 per dog to offset their costs - recipients get the dogs after paying $225. The foundation relies on the generosity of corporations, civic organizations and individuals to fund the operation.
This year, the nonprofit Saint Francis foundation hopes to begin raising $2.5 million for a training center and expand its operation to keep up with the demand for service dogs. The needed donations will come, Willoughby said, once people understand the important role service dogs play in the lives of the handicapped.
Medical research could help the foundation make its case. A 1996 study conducted by researchers in New York and California found that service dogs not only improved the emotional well-being of their handicapped masters, they also cut care costs by thousands of dollars annually, substantially decreasing the number of hours paid nurses and assistants had to attend to the handicapped.
"Psychologically, all participants showed substantial improvements in self-esteem, internal locus of control [feeling in control of events], and psychological well-being within six months after receiving their service dogs," the researchers wrote in the Journal of the American Medical Association. "Socially, all participants showed similar improvements in community integration. Demographically, participants demonstrated substantial increases in terms of school attendance and part-time employment. Economically, all participants showed dramatic decreases in the number of both paid and unpaid assistance hours."
Singh, who uses a wheelchair in public, said she's noticed that people are more comfortable with her when her service dog is by her side, a phenomenon researchers also have noted.
"People see the dog and they see something they like," Singh said, "as opposed to seeing someone they're uncomfortable with. It shifts the focus. A lot of times when I have Kenda with me, folks are a little bit more attentive. By yourself, folks might look the other way."
Willoughby said, "Without a dog at the mall, people don't speak and they look away. They're trying to be polite and they don't want to be perceived as staring. People with disabilities often feel invisible because of that. You put a dog in the picture, people are smiling and speaking and saying, 'What a beautiful dog.' It's an icebreaker."
Willoughby, whose arthritis immobilized her in the 1970s, received her first service dog in 1987. The dog, named Booker, died soon after, and she had to go to an individual trainer to find a replacement.
Her experience, she said, convinced her that there needed to be an organized effort to train service dogs. Hence creation of the Saint Francis foundation.
Though no one apparently keeps a precise count of training operations, a spokeswoman for the American Kennel Club's New York headquarters said its list of service-dog organizations contains 80 names.
Since millions of Americans have disabilities, Willoughby said, the number of organizations providing service dogs is woefully inadequate.
To help more people get service dogs, the Saint Francis foundation last year hired an executive director and a training director and will soon have another employee charged with applying for grants, Willoughby said. It's also putting a fund-raising team in place to help find enough money to build a training center.
"Service dogs can change a whole family's life," Willoughby said. "Having a dog who's entertaining and loving, it gives the disabled a sense of independence and responsibility."
To learn more about the Saint Francis
of Assisi Service Dog Foundation, visit its Web site at http://www.saintfrancisdogs.org
or call (540) 342-DOGS.
(C) 2002 Richmond Times-Dispatch