Service dogs make a difference to disabled

  • Published
  • By Marie Anne Swain
  • Battle Management Directorate
October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, an annual campaign that educates people about disability employment issues. The theme for this year, which marks 70 years since the first observance, is "My Disability is One Part of Who I Am."

That theme speaks to the important message that people with disabilities are people too. And one way to assist people with a disability is through the help of a service dog.

I'm always asked by people who know me well why I didn't choose a career path working with dogs. I sometimes wonder that myself. Dogs are my passion and by volunteering as a weekend puppy raiser for the National Education for Assistance Dog Services, I feel as though I am living the dream.

I receive a dog when it is only three months old and continue to work with the dog until about 18 months. My focus as a weekend puppy raiser is to socialize the dog and reinforce training they receive during the week.

I have been so honored and blessed to be able to help raise service dogs. I know firsthand how a dog can change a person's life. My husband, Robert, is confined to a wheelchair and is an owner of a NEADS dog named Waldo. 

Having Waldo is a true testament to how a service dog can change a life. Life changed for Bob the moment he was matched with Waldo.

Waldo will retrieve items my husband drops on the floor. He'll also turn on light switches and open doors and elevators. In addition, Waldo helps Bob with balance issues when he stands up from his wheelchair.

But what he has provided my husband most is that people no longer see my husband as someone in a wheelchair. Now Waldo attracts people to Bob. A simple trip to a store or any other place now turns into a longer trip. It warms my heart to hear Bob tell people about his service dog. People are genuinely interested in his story. 

Being a weekend puppy raiser for NEADS has enriched my life in many ways. When I'm out socializing with my puppy, people approach us to get information about the program. I cannot believe I'm part of this wonderful organization that is able to give so much joy to people. 

When I tell people that I volunteer for NEADS, their first question to me is "How can you give the puppy up after a year and a half?" I tell them it is very difficult, but rewarding, to have had a part in changing someone's life. For that I am truly grateful. 

My fifth dog, and current puppy in training, is an 11-month-old Black Labrador named Taylor. We attended a NEADS event back in March 2014 called "Reading to Rover" where young children with learning disabilities read to dogs. It's a great program which has been getting more recognition of late.

Experts say that it's more comfortable for children to read to a dog rather than a person because dogs won't judge them.

There was one young boy at the "Reading to Rover" event that instantly bonded with Taylor. The boy had a traumatic experience earlier with a neighborhood dog and was now afraid of all dogs. He was even afraid to pet his family's cat.   

After the boy's positive experience with Taylor, the boy was invited back to a similar event. His mother said that every day the boy hoped Taylor was returning. Taylor and I did attend the bond has grown. 

Stories like this and many others are the reason I volunteer for an organization like NEADS. To be able to say that I have helped train and socialize a dog for someone with a disability is such a wonderful and rewarding feeling.