September 30, 2002
Special to The Clarion-Ledger
HATTIESBURG - Ellie Mae is helping her friend Pat Allen of Hattiesburg open doors that might have remained closed because of Allen's struggle with multiple sclerosis.
Not bad, considering Ellie Mae is a dog.
A year ago, Ellie Mae, a golden retriever, became Allen's companion and service dog, assisting her in maintaining physical balance while she walks.
Allen, 56, gives Ellie Mae credit for helping her remain active despite having occasional trouble walking because of the disease, which she was diagnosed with nearly 30 years ago.
Since Ellie Mae came into Allen's life in October, the two have developed a strong bond. "She's like having a family member helping you," she said.
Wednesday, Allen and Ellie Mae visited students at the Dubard School for Language Disorders at the University of Southern Mississippi. Allen talked about the training Ellie Mae received at Canine Assistants, a school in Alpharetta, Ga., that provides service dogs to the disabled.
The dogs are trained for about 18 months, beginning as puppies, then are provided free to their owners. Training costs about $10,000 for each dog, which is paid with corporate funding from such companies as Milk Bone.
In addition to helping their masters walk, the dogs also have been trained to perform other tasks such as picking up dropped articles or placing a client's purse on a store counter so a cashier can take out grocery money.
Allen told students Ellie Mae is a service dog, similar to a seeing-eye dog blind people use to help them move around. When Allen walks with Ellie Mae, the upright handle on her harness allows Allen to hold on if she begins to having problems maintaining her balance.
Allen asked students what they thought a dog like Ellie Mae did with the training he or she had received.
"They help people," several students responded.
"That's exactly what they do," Allen said.
The Dubard School serves children with severe language and speech disorders and hearing impairments, as well as provides guidance and counseling for their parents and families. Students may now see dogs in a different light, as more than being just a great pet for people, said Maureen Martin, director of the Dubard School.
"I believe it taught the children that adults who have some kind of disability can have productive, independent lives, and that, with special training, dogs can be useful to people with disabilities," Martin said.
As much as she is a great help to Allen, Ellie Mae has also made a great
friend — a talent for which dogs have long been famous. "Even more so than
helping me physically, she provides companionship," Allen said.
Copyright © 2002, The Clarion-Ledger