All About Multiple Sclerosis

More MS news articles for May 2004

Labrador in service of his disabled friend

May 6, 2004
Clark Grell
Columbus Telegram

Pumbaa is like any other dog in many ways.

He's playful, he sleeps the majority of the day and he likes to look out the window a lot. But his owner is quick to point out the difference.

"This isn't a pet," Dan Harrington of Columbus said. "This is a $16,000 piece of machinery used by someone with a physical disability."

Pumbaa - a 2-year-old black labrador - is Harrington's service dog. He received the dog free of charge from Kansas Specialty Dog Service in Washington, Kan., where labradors are trained to help people with disabilities. To support the costs of training and supplies, the dog service uses sponsorship and fund-raisers.

The use of service dogs is popular among people with multiple sclerosis, latent polio and severe nerve damage. Harrington went through his fourth back surgery last fall, and he has nerve damage in his legs. Harrington can walk around his family's home with no problem, but when he takes care of things downtown or shops, Harrington needs Pumbaa there to keep him balanced.

Some people confuse a service dog with guide dogs that help the blind or signal dogs that help the deaf, the 55-year-old Harrington said.

"You get to the point of people asking, 'Hey, what are you doing with the dog? You don't look disabled,'" he said. "But these types of dogs help the people that don't look disabled."

Pumbaa is Harrington's second service dog. Before Pumbaa was Horton - a yellow lab that died from cancer last fall, a day before Harrington's fourth back operation.

Harrington said he decided to get either a black or chocolate lab because it would be hard on him to have a dog that resembles Horton. Pumbaa has been at the home for more than a month.

"When we got Horton, service dogs were not allowed in Nebraska," Harrington said.

With the help of then-governor Ben Nelson, Legislative Bill 254 - Americans with Disabilities for Service Dogs Act - was signed and Nebraskans with disabilities were allowed to have a trained and licensed service dog. The law is called Horton's Law.

"That person may get that dog and go anywhere in the general public," Harrington said.

Pumbaa was taught 50 commands, 10 of them specifically for Harrington's needs. He's quick to point out none of them are tricks. The 2-year-old lab spent the last six months of his training period learning the commands Harrington had requested. Some of them included barking on command - something Horton had trouble with. Other commands Harrington wanted were tug, follow and forward commands. Harrington also wanted a dog that traveled and is constantly watching his knees.

"If we're going to a grocery store and the aisles were narrow, I would say 'follow' and he would get behind me," Harrington said. "If I say 'forward,' he'll lead."

The service dogs are good for 8-10 years. After that, the owner can get a younger and stronger new dog and the older dog is retired and will likely find a new home.

Harrington has about five or six stores in Columbus he likes to go to, but he does a lot of his shopping in Norfolk, where many stores are handicap accessible, Harrington said.

One problem for Harrington is people coming up and wanting to pet the animal.

"These dogs know that if they're going out and everybody is going to pet them and hug them, he quits working," he said.

So to make things easier, a sign on the back of Pumbaa's harness states "Please don't pet me, I'm working."

Through it all, Harrington said he has learned not to take comments from the public about his dog too seriously.

Because of his current health, Harrington is unable to work, but he said he hopes to be working part time in a year or so.

Pumbaa is getting adjusted to his new settings. At the same time, Harrington still has thoughts and memories of Horton, the lab he grew very close to. Along the living room wall is memorabilia of Horton and a letter from Nelson about his concern about Horton's passing.

It's now Pumbaa's turn to pick up where Horton left off.

He may be considered a machine, but that doesn't mean Pumbaa gets treated differently than any other dog. Harrington said he wrestles with the dog a little bit for fun and watches movies with him. Through the fun, Pumbaa still knows what his duty is.

"His feet are my feet," Harrington said. "His strength is my strength."

Copyright © 2004, Columbus Telegram