More MS news articles for September 2002

Canine is a working companion

September 19, 2002
By Amber Smith Staff writer

Chris Rupert's dog Emmett is always by her side.

When the North Syracuse woman drops a hot dog, what do you think her dog does?

What would your dog do?

Emmett, 9, a yellow Labrador retriever, is a canine working companion. Rupert volunteers for the nonprofit organization Canine Working Companions. Because she has multiple sclerosis, she has used a wheelchair for 20 years. It's Emmett's job to help Rupert get around, using a harness to pull her. It's definitely a team effort.

"His job is the pulling power," Rupert explains. "It's my job to do the steering and watch to make sure we don't run into walls or go off curbs."

Rupert depended on her daughter's assistance when her daughter lived at home. She grew up and got married, "so I lost my helper," Rupert explains. "That's when I decided to get my dog."

She'd had dogs as pets all her life. She knew how loving they could be, and she'd even had fun teaching a few tricks. "But I never really comprehended the depth of the dogs and how smart they are, and how much you could teach them until I got Emmett.

"I was just totally in awe."

Emmett's been Rupert's companion for seven years. A volunteer trained him for 18 months, and then he and Rupert continued more extensive training.

Canine Working Companions started in 1986 and has trained and placed about 130 dogs since then. They learn to open doors, to pick up telephones, to serve as a brace for someone who falls and needs help getting up. Most of the dogs are Labrador retrievers, because retrieving is one of the important skills they'll need.

The group relies on volunteers to raise and train the puppies for 18 months and then turn them over to someone such as Rupert, who will rely on them around the clock.

Rupert and Emmett will be at the annual "Paws for Cause" fund-raiser from 8 to 11 a.m. Saturday at Onondaga Lake Park. They'll do the walkathon, and Emmett will compete in the food challenge.

That's where dogs line up with food bowls in front of them. Food is added as enticement. The winner is the dog that doesn't go for the food.

Rupert said training dogs so they don't go after food is extremely difficult. It's extremely important for service dogs such as Emmett, however. If he starts chewing on something, Rupert can't wrestle it from his jaw to make sure it's safe.

Emmett, by the way, is the food challenge champion. "I could put it right on his paw, and he's not going to eat it," Rupert boasts.

What about the hot dog?

He gently retrieves it, in his mouth, and places it in Rupert's hand.

She admits he didn't do that the first time.

"He ate the first two. But then he said, 'Oh, wait, you said GIVE,' and he gave it to me."

© 2002 The Post-Standard