More MS news articles for June 2001

Service dogs are helping the disabled

Arlington woman educates others about canine assistant laws.

Monday June 04 07:03 AM EDT
By Nathaniel Jones
Star-Telegram Staff Writer

ARLINGTON - Huddled under a table near Jodi Ryan's feet, Sky waits patiently for her owner's next move. And when Ryan, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, scoots her chair back, it's time for Sky to work.

Sky, a harlequin Great Dane, quickly stands at Ryan's side, brushing against her leg to keep Ryan upright and ready to act on her command.

"Go, wait, go," Ryan says as they walk. When it's time to use the stairs, she commands "One ... one" for each step they climb.

Unlike the typical guide dog that accompanies a blind person, Sky is a service dog who, through a 21Ú2-year relationship, has learned to take care of Ryan.

Now Ryan and Sky are teaching others about service dogs and the laws that protect them.

Ryan, who spends many hours at City Hall as a member of the Citizens Budget Review Committee, has come to learn how people react to the trained animals and is out to inform the public about disabled people and service dogs.

"The more people I can educate, the less problems I'm going to have," she said.

It is a continuing battle. "I've been in the restaurants and taxicabs where I've been told I couldn't bring Sky," Ryan said.

Ryan is a member of the Assistance Dogs of Texas, an organization that helps train canines for disabled people.

She and Sky volunteer at the Southwest Airlines training facility at Dallas Love Field, teaching flight attendants what to expect from disabled people with service dogs.

"We teach attendants how to treat the dog and what to expect," Ryan said. "If I was to fall out, she's going to stay by my side."

Kathy J. Pettit, a flight attendant trainer with Southwest, said airlines are beginning to see more service animals on board, and flight attendants should know how to respond.

"It's our responsibility to make sure our disabled customers are as comfortable as we can make it for them," Pettit said.

"Flight attendants learn service dogs are well-trained and they don't have behavior issues. The dogs are not going to run down the aisles licking on passengers' faces."

During a recent training session, Ryan backed Sky into a row of airline seats, and slowly the 100-pound Sky folded up under the seat in front.

"The flight attendants are amazed that she can fit under the seat," Ryan said.

Pettit said Southwest prohibits non-service animals on planes, but under federal law, carriers must allow service dogs with appropriate identification. Southwest will make accommodations for nearby passengers allergic to animals.

Ryan has had multiple sclerosis since the 1960s, but it wasn't until 1980 that the disease was diagnosed. Multiple sclerosis is a degenerative disease of the central nervous system in which hardening of tissue occurs throughout the brain or spinal cord.

"I would reach for a glass and miss it, or I would be walking and bump into a wall for an unknown reason," Ryan said. "Doctors just kept telling me that it was nervousness."

Ryan refused to accept that. Through persistence she found a doctor in Fort Worth who diagnosed multiple sclerosis, a disease that sometimes limits her to a wheelchair.

One day, while reading the Multiple Sclerosis Monthly newsletter, she read an article about a woman who had a dog that picked up items she dropped.

"I called around for a dog but found out it could be up to a seven-year wait for one," Ryan said.

She took matters into her own hands and went searching in the newspaper.

"I had been told that when I went searching for the puppy that if it does not come to me then I shouldn't take it because we wouldn't bond together," Ryan said. "At one particular litter, there were three puppies, and one ran to me and jumped into my lap, so she was marked as mine from the beginning."

Ryan named that puppy after its sky-blue eyes and began training Sky basic obedience skills.

Several months later she met Cindy Roberts of Ovilla, who helped with the training, particularly for service in public places.

"Being around the different noises in public places is too stressful for typical family pets," Roberts said. "Service dogs have been trained not to be distracted."

Ryan said that with Sky's help she is able to live as close to an unrestricted life as possible.

"She has become more than a pet that helps me," Ryan said. "She knows when I get tired and need to sit down. If there isn't a seat around, she'll back me against a wall so I can rest.

"When you're not feeling good and [you're] alone, it's scary. It feels good just knowing she's at my side."

© 2001 Star-Telegram, Fort Worth, Texas