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Service dogs are beyond fetching

Their use is growing. They help guide the blind, perform tasks for the physically disabled and may even help people with epilepsy and autism.

July 18, 2011|By Karen Ravn, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Glen Gregos, who is paralyzed from the chest down, pets his service dog, Beulah, whom he calls Miss Bo.
Glen Gregos, who is paralyzed from the chest down, pets his service dog,… (Michael Robinson Chavez,…)

One moment 15-year-old Glen Gregos was a happy-go-lucky kid riding a motorcycle. The next he was the lucky-to-be-alive victim of a terrible accident, paralyzed from the chest down.

Now 54 and a resident of Woodland Hills, Gregos has built a rewarding life — college, marriage, a successful banking career, a daughter who just graduated from college.

Still, for decades after the accident, Gregos faced challenges every day from simple things most of us take for granted — going to the grocery store, going out the front door. And then six years ago, his life took another dramatic turn. He met Beulah — a.k.a. Miss Bo — a black Labrador retriever who has been at his side, 24/7, ever since — to open doors, carry bags, pull his wheelchair, pick up anything he drops on the floor and cheer up any black mood he falls into.

"It's hard to put into words everything these dogs do for you," he says. "It's physical. It's emotional. It's all-encompassing. You probably have to live it to understand it."

Miss Bo is not considered a pet. She's a service dog, a concept first introduced with guide (or seeing-eye) dogs for the blind, perhaps as far back as the 16th century, though it wasn't until 1929 that the first guide dog training school in the U.S. opened up. By the 1970s, people had started training dogs to help with other disabilities, and that trend has continued.

Service dogs now include dogs that can open cupboards and drawers, alert someone to a ringing telephone, assist someone during a disorienting seizure, help someone keep their balance or get back up after a fall, not to mention dogs that can sniff allergens in the air or low blood sugar on someone's breath.

"Here in the U.S. we have a highly individualistic culture — creative, experimental," says Lynette Hart, director of the Center for Animals in Society at UC Davis. "It's like a caldron for coming up with new things that dogs can do for us. And dogs love to work. It's a very natural marriage for them to help people."

This has been a boon for many who, like Gregos, have had their lives changed by some extraordinary dogs. But potential pitfalls abound. "There's almost no regulation," Hart says. "And everyone wants to do what they want to do."

Sometimes people want to call their dogs service dogs even though they're really not. And sometimes people want to believe dogs can do things even though there's no real proof they can.

Many dogs have a natural knack for providing comfort, companionship and emotional support to their people, who often consider that a pretty big service. But it doesn't make those dogs service dogs. Neither does a capacity for warding off crime by looking or sounding formidable. According to the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act and new regulations put in place in March, a service dog must be trained to perform a service for a person with a disability that is directly related to the person's disability — turning lights on and off for someone who's paralyzed, for example, or alerting someone who's deaf that a smoke alarm is blaring.

Many organizations train one or more kinds of service dogs, and in general their programs follow a pattern set by the early guide dog training organizations: careful breeding followed by puppy-raising by volunteers who begin the basics of obedience and socialization, and finally intensive training by professionals. (Potential human recipients also are carefully screened, trained and matched to dogs.)

Guide Dogs for the Blind, the first guide dog training school on the West Coast, relies solely on Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers and crosses of the two. Training organizations for other types of service dogs often do too. "They have wonderful temperaments," says Katie Malatino, public relations coordinator for one such organization, Canine Companions for Independence, headquartered in Santa Rosa. "They're a good size for the tasks they have to do, and they have an instinct to retrieve, which comes in handy for picking things up off the floor."

Canine Companions for Independence provided Miss Bo to Gregos in November 2005. These days she is always on call if Gregos needs her, which is not to say that she never has any fun. "She has toys," he says. "We play ball. But once she gets vested up" — wearing the vest that identifies her as a service dog — "she knows, 'OK, I'm ready to work.' " (And people who see the vest should should know and respect that too.)

Like any good service dog, when she's working, Miss Bo is unperturbed by loud or unexpected noises ("bomb proof," Malatino calls it) and undistracted by other animals or people — unless Gregos gives her special dispensation. Which he often does.

"I put her in a 'sit' and let people pet her," he says. "I want to create more awareness about these special dogs. I wasn't aware of them myself for a long time. I'd think, 'What can a dog do for a guy in a wheelchair?' "

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