While most pooches snooze on the couch dreaming of what table scraps they'll be able to score that evening, other canines are earning kudos by helping others.
“Our dogs go into hospitals, schools, and rehab centers as well as into homes,” says Lori Tatum, who co-owns Tatum Kennels Training & German Shepherd Dogs in Lake Village, Indiana with her daughter Brittney Piske. “Yesterday one of my personal dogs that I trained went to a home as a therapy/assistance dog for a MS patient. This was probably the 5th dog that was homed for that. We have also placed dogs with several paraplegic and quadriplegic people. Two others went to Down’s Syndrome children. Saturday one of our pups went to a disabled man who will be bringing her back here for training.”
Certain canine breeds can be trained for a myriad of duties — seizure, migraine and diabetes alert, seizure response, balance and mobility difficulties and those diagnosed with autism, diabetes, narcolepsy and psychiatric disorders like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Any dog providing assistance to someone with a disability is considered a service dog, according to the American Disabilities Act. This designation allows the dogs equal access to any place the general public is allow including stores, taxis, restaurants, movie theaters, airplanes and offices.
Rachel Miller worked for a service dog trainer in Georgia before moving back to Northwest Indiana. Her parents gave her four Golden Retriever/Golden Labrador cross puppies, and she started Northern Indiana Service Dogs which provides trained service dogs for people with autism as well as seizure and psychical disorders.
Miracle, a pure bred Yellow Labrador that Miller trained, has been a 24/7 companion for Shiloh Rice of Lebanon for the last two years.
“She can pull my wheelchair, close doors and retrieve items for me,” says Rice who has cerebral palsy. “She lies next to me at night and her body helps relax my muscles.”
It was devastating for Rice when her previous service dog, Colt, had to retire after nine years because of medical conditions. Miracle, in ways, seems to live up to her name.
“You’re with these dogs all the time and it’s very hard when you lose them,” says Rice.
Miller recently placed another of her trained dogs with a non-verbal 13-year-old young man diagnosed with autism.
“At first he didn’t want to have anything to do with Addie,” she says. “They met in a park in Plymouth and Addie just sat there, not overwhelming him, just gradually connecting with him. Within a while they were walking together.”
Before Addie, the boy’s parents hadn’t been able to leave the house.
“Now they’re able to leave the house because their son has a companion,” she says. “Addie is just so aware of what’s going on and what’s needed.”
Tatum, who didn’t have a pet when she was a child, says she’s overcompensated, owning her kennel for the last 35 years. Using European German Shepherds, she trains them according to their personalities and capabilities to service people with a wide arrangement of physical needs.
“Paraplegics, Quads and MS patients require a dog that can is strong and sturdy,” says Tatum who eschews American German Shepherds as being unstable, aloof and not nearly as strong. A well bred, stable, clear headed dog is what it takes. “We’re very careful and selective with our breeding to make sure they’re from the finest breeding in Europe. Only dogs that are Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) certified working titled and showing correct conformation and temperament are suitable for our breeding program.”
When someone requests a service dog either for themselves or for someone else, Tatum conducts an assessment ensuring a match between what dogs are capable of doing as well as what the dogs can do for them.
“Too many times when something happens to someone, they’re in an accident or get M.S., they think 'Oh, I’m too ill or impaired to handle a dog,'” says Tatum. “But the proper dog can do so much, including turn on lights and get the phone, that they really are such a big help and make life easier.”
Miller’s dogs come from Golden Journey Retrievers in LaPorte. Training for such activities as opening and closing doors, retrieving dropped objects, carrying medicine in a pack, pulling wheelchairs and assisting with balance can take up to 18 months.
“They have the workforce and seriousness of Labs and gentleness like Goldens,” she says. “They say that before you seize, you put out a chemical smell,” says Miller, mentioning that they don’t guarantee that their dogs will be able to alert their owners before seizure. “Seizure dogs also are extremely aware of what their owners need.”
Service dogs are there no matter what says Rice.
“Miracle not only knows her commands, she seems to understand me intuitively,” she says. “She knows when I’m having a bad day and that she has to be really, really there for me.”