‘It’s like having someone cover your back all the time’

Beyond helping with physical tasks, assistance canines give their paw-picked owners hope

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Eight-year-old Chance Ogden dressed to the nines for an interview with his potential assistance dog. He knew the dog’s trainer liked Michael Jackson, so Chance wore a clip-on bow tie and gloves. He also sported a classy dress shirt, nicely pressed slacks and dress shoes. He really wanted to impress both the trainer and the dog.

That was four years ago, and Assistance Dogs of the West, which trains dogs to provide emotional and physical support to clients with disabilities, didn’t quite have the right match for Chance, who was born with a medical condition his parents do not want to disclose. So he had to wait.

And he did wait, for four years, until early this year – a day before his 12th birthday. That’s when Assistance Dogs of the West got him the perfect match in an English Labrador named Billie, who, upon seeing Chance, seemed to say: “Oh boy, I’ve been waiting for you my whole life! Let’s go!”

For Chance, who lives in Río Rancho, Billie has become a lifeline, a canine companion who helps him cope with post-traumatic stress disorder and social anxiety.

“She makes me feel more secure,” Chance said. “She gives me confidence to try new things.”

Assistance Dogs of the West has long used service dogs to provide support to the physically disabled and give a sense of purpose and hope to combat veterans. In recent years, it has expanded to provide dogs to comfort children who have been witnesses or victims in domestic and sexual abuse cases, among other projects.

For those suffering from disabilities and despair, the dogs provide something that can sometimes be in short supply: hope.

“For a person with a progressive disease, this program can assist in providing a level of independence that alone they couldn’t really have because they would not be able to manage the environment without the service of an assistance dog,” said Linda Milanesi, executive director of the 22-year-old nonprofit, headquartered in Santa Fe.

Santa Fean Marcie Davis, who works as a project director for the New Mexico Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs, understands that. She has spent 46 of her 52 years in a wheelchair, a result of a spill she took off of a backyard swing that led to a spinal cord injury.

Her 4-year-old service dog, Lovey, picks up anything Davis drops, including pens, keys, and cellphones that come in handy during medical emergencies. Lovey also collects the laundry from the dryer, carries grocery bags and fetches Davis’ shoes. Lying on the bed, Lovey stretches her front two legs out and braces them for Davis to use them as she pulls herself out of a wheelchair and onto the bed.

“I see them as Olympian athletes, having to be in the best shape to do their job,” said Davis, who has had four assistance dogs over the past 25 years.

“It’s like having someone cover your back all the time,” she said as Lovey lay at the foot of her wheelchair. “Someone who is loving and supportive and nonjudgmental. That’s a gift.”

If the dogs are gifts, they are ones that often require patience and an investment. Every spring, Assistance Dogs of the West graduates an average of 15 dogs ready to go to work with paw-picked clients, given it’s the dog who chooses the client, and not the other way around, Milanesi says.

But 15 dogs per year is not enough to meet the need. This year, for example, the organization had about 50 people showing interest in acquiring a service dog, either by applying for one, interviewing with the hope of finding a canine match or learning how to train their own dog to be an assistance dog – a service Assistance Dogs of the West offers.

That’s one reason young Chance had to wait four years for Billie.

Clients pay for the services provided by Assistance Dogs of the West – about $6,100 for in-state residents and about $7,600 for out-of-state residents, though they do not have to pay for the dogs.

Founded in 1995, Assistance Dogs of the West breeds its own dogs – usually Labradors, labradoodles, poodles, Australian shepherds and golden retrievers. Dogs start receiving age-appropriate training as puppies and usually undergo 18 to 24 months’ worth of intense training before being paired with a client.

The dogs can go home for weekend overnight stays with those trainers to better bond with them.

A few don’t make the cut. “They don’t want to work,” Milanesi said, adding that those dogs get put up for adoption.

Once the dog is ready, he or she has to meet with potential clients, each of whom goes through both an application and interview process. The clients also have to come in for a week of training with their new helpers.

In 2010, Assistance Dogs of the West began placing dogs in judicial districts in New Mexico, Arizona and California as part of a courthouse dog program to provide support in cases involving children.

And the dogs are taking on more responsibility. Eight Assistance Dogs of the West canines recently were deployed to Las Vegas, Nevada, following the Oct. 1, 2017 mass shooting that left 58 dead and more than 500 wounded. They have been used as emotionally calming intermediaries in similar situations.

“Just looking at a dog at rest can lower your blood pressure,” Milanesi said.

Billie does much more than that for Chance, who once feared the dark, going to the bathroom alone or interacting with others his age. No more. The dog even accompanies him to his basketball games, though as well-trained as she is, she often wants to bound onto the court and help move the ball along.

“Billie gives Chance a chance to get well,” said Richard Ogden, who with his wife, Anne, adopted Chance when he was a young child.

“She’s almost an extra advantage for Chance to make friends,” Anne Ogden said. “Kids are attracted to the dog, and so she becomes a bridging component for him to relate to other people.”

For combat veterans, assistance dogs provide direction, in part because when veterans get involved in the training of the dogs, they know they will end up helping another veteran suffering from PTSD.

“With our veterans, when they learn to train the service dogs, they tell us that it gives them purpose again,” Milanesi said. “And because they have been trained very purposefully to go into combat, when they come back, they often have a sense of not knowing what direction to take. So drawing on the warrior ethos of ‘no brother left behind,’ even training a service dog for another veteran gives them that purpose.”

Clients are expected to ensure the dogs get constant medical care, including maintaining good dental hygiene. For example, should Davis drop a toothbrush on the floor, once Lovey picks it up and returns it to her, it’s an excuse for Davis to use it to brush the dog’s teeth instead of her own.

“Take care of the dog and the dog will take care of you,” Milanesi said.

Contact Robert Nott at (505)-986-3021 or rnott@sfnewmexican.c­om. This story first published in the Santa Fe New Mexican, a sister publication of The Taos News. 

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