Paws for concern
Donny isn’t your typical “froufrou” poodle. This service animal spends his days helping the hand that feeds him.
When Virginia Cannon began volunteering five years ago at Therapetics, a Tulsa-based organization that trains dogs to help Oklahomans with disabilities, she had no idea that a puppy she watched grow up in the program would someday become her much-needed extra arms and legs.
But after a car accident caused a serious spinal cord injury in 2007 that aggravated Cannon’s fibromyalgia and osteoporosis, she found walking difficult. When the Therapetics staff told Cannon she should apply for her own service dog, she reacted like many other clients.
“We basically had to twist her arm,” Therapetics Executive Director Lisa Bycroft says. “She kept saying that other people needed a dog more than she did.”
Six months after Cannon submitted her request for a service dog, she was partnered with Donny, a standard poodle that was part of the same class as other dogs she had trained. Most of Therapetics’ service dogs are Labrador and golden retrievers because of their size and their natural willingness to please humans. Standard poodles, while a rarer service breed, are even taller (about chest level for Cannon), are hypoallergenic and are extremely intelligent.
Once partnered with Donny, Cannon knew that the mild-mannered, strong dog was the perfect match for her personality and physical needs.
“He’s an amazing dog, and I can’t imagine life without Donny,” she says.
Much more than “man’s best friend”
Because Cannon has difficulty balancing, Donny wears a harness that Cannon grips as she walks. He commutes with her two days a week from their home in Glenpool to help Cannon navigate the Oklahoma State University campus in Stillwater, where she’s earning an honors literature degree.
He also helps Cannon stand up and sit down, opens the refrigerator and retrieves items for her, which helps reduce her fatigue. But Donny periodically goes beyond easing her daily routine.
He alerts Cannon, who also has hypoglycemia, to dangerous changes in her blood sugar level about 45 minutes before she realizes there’s a problem. When necessary, he can retrieve emergency food or Cannon’s cell phone, circumventing a potentially life-threatening situation. Amazingly, Donny has never been trained in blood sugar detection, as Therapetics does not offer this type of training.
“Because of the bond between us, he can just smell and sense the chemical change in my body,” Cannon explains.
Cannon and Donny, who is almost 3, are approaching their first anniversary together, but since the average work life of a Therapetics service dog is about 10 years, their bond will undoubtedly continue to grow. After a dog’s service career officially ends, it becomes a regular pet and is often adopted by its partner as a result of that strong relationship, Bycroft says.
“Donny is everything to me,” Cannon says. “I can’t imagine partnerships that have gone on for 12 years. I’m still in the honeymoon stage.”
The making of a service dog
Therapetics has trained hundreds of service dogs like Donny since the program began in 1992. As a nonprofit, the organization relies on private financial support and volunteer assistance. Because Therapetics does not have a kennel, it is especially in need of puppy raisers, such as Becky Reordan, who lived with and trained Donny for nearly two years.
Puppy raisers aren’t required to have any dog training experience. However, to be paired with a dog, they must agree to bring the dog to regular training classes and work with the dog at home and in public as much as possible.
“It’s important to start training in a real-world environment so the dog isn’t having to relearn without distractions later,” Bycroft says.
Most service dogs begin age-appropriate training around 8 or 9 weeks old. Dogs are donated from local breeders, although Therapetics recently began its own breeding program, with plans to raise its first litter later this year, while continuing to accept donated dogs. After two years of obedience and advanced training, a Therapetics dog still must put in 100 additional hours of specialty training with its proposed partner. This allows the dog to learn commands and actions that are specific to that individual’s needs.
The dogs learn both verbal commands and hand signals and view the long process as merely “structured play,” Reordan says.
She points out that while puppy raising requires a significant time commitment, the hardest part is saying goodbye. Fortunately, she and Cannon have become close friends, so she visits Donny regularly.
“Giving him up was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it was the best thing I’ve ever done,” she says. “I’ve seen firsthand what he’s been able to do for Virginia.”
Changing lives, one dog at a time
To qualify for a Therapetics dog, individuals must have a disability that affects their everyday mobility or is expected to reach that level, Bycroft says. Like Cannon, about half of the organization’s clients have suffered a spinal injury. Many have progressive conditions such as muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, spinabifida or rheumatoid arthritis.
Recipients also must be able to manage a dog independently and must have the financial means on their own or through assistance to take care of the dog. The average wait time for a Therapetics dog is about two years.
Once a client receives a service dog, Oklahoma law allows it to accompany him or her to public places, including restaurants and stores. Service dogs generally fascinate kids, but clients sometimes experience resistance from people who aren’t familiar with dogs or belong to cultures that treat dogs differently than in the U.S., Bycroft says.
Cannon says Donny often garners polar reactions: adoration or panic. While she understands people’s natural curiosity, she explains that encroaching movements or loud noises can be a major distraction to service dogs and to clients’ families.
“You have to allow so much extra time to answer people’s questions,” she admits.
While Therapetics’ service dogs are wonderful, Bycroft says the program is mostly about changing someone’s life for the better, something Cannon and her family — 15- and 13-year-old daughters and a 17-year-old son — have experienced firsthand.
“I can take my girls to the mall,” she says. “I can go to the grocery store by myself now. Last year was the first time in many years that I actually went Christmas shopping. I can do the little things in life that other people take for granted.”