Rita and LaLa are a team. LaLa is Rita's security blanket, a service dog with an important job to do, a job she takes very seriously. Their partnership began when LaLa was a pup and Rita was using a cane.
Most service dogs are raised by families, or even prison inmates, and then professionally trained before going into service for a person with a disability. Handi-Dogs, Inc., of Tucson, trains the person to train her own dog.
In search of a suitable dog, Rita was not looking for a purebred or a white shepherd, but a dog that would listen and was eager to learn. When she met this pup, she knew immediately that this was a good match.
Rita and LaLa began training together at Handi-Dog when LaLa was three months old and continued for a year-and-a-half. Beginning with the basics, Rita learned about dog management and how to teach good manners, which included the commands to sit, stay, down, leave-it and wait.
"Wait" means to immediately stop any forward movement, which is essential when a person is totally dependent on her dog for balance and stability. Before graduation, LaLa and Rita were tested, including going to a restaurant where LaLa had to lie quietly under the table no matter what tasty morsel might drop to the floor within reach. Wonderful friendships were formed during her time at Handi-Dog and Rita continues to stay in touch with a number of people she met there.
As Rita's needs change, LaLa's work changes. Training is ongoing. Rita is constantly trying new ways to teach a needed new task. Clicker training works for a person with a disability because it does not take physical strength. Clicker training is based on rewarding small steps and shaping these into a complete desired task. The sound of the clicker lets the dog know that what she just did was good and she will soon receive a delicious treat. It is important to attempt to teach each new action correctly the first time because "un-training is difficult." Rita says.
Teaching to retrieve opens the door to many helpful tasks the dog can perform for the owner including fetching, carrying, bringing an item from one person to another and even sorting laundry. LaLa picks up dropped items, including small coins, and carries grocery bags from the van into the house. She will grab a rope attached to a doorknob and pull the door open, holding it while Rita passes through in the wheelchair.
"Service dogs are generally good natured and friendly. They are good introduction material between people with disabilities and other members of the community." Rita says.
"Meeting a person in a wheelchair can cause anxiety. An able-bodied person wants to be helpful and friendly but sometimes doesn't quite know what to say or do. This is more common than you might think. I have seen mothers cringe in embarrassment when their small children yell, ‘Look Mama, that lady is riding in a chair'. LaLa is a real ice-breaker. I generally plan on two hours per outing, even if all I need is a loaf of bread. People notice her, can talk about her, can talk about their own dogs, and they do. Children get so excited about the dog that the wheelchair becomes totally irrelevant."
Rita said, "About petting a service dog, or any dog for that matter, always ask first, please. Some dogs are trained to never interact with people in public. There can be a very good reason for a dog to focus exclusively on its owner. And there are times when service dogs who are allowed to socialize with people must not be distracted and times when a service dog owner is just not up to a visit. This person is dealing with circumstances that we may not be aware of such as pain and fatigue."
"Most service doggers I know are happy to allow their dogs to be petted as long as people observe basic etiquette." Rita continues. "Personally, I like to see LaLa schmoozing with others. She works hard and I figure she is entitled to the extra attention as often as I can spare the time and energy to wait while she gets it."
LaLa loves going to the Payson Off Leash Dog Park. There she is off duty and learning valuable social skills. Rita tells about their first visit to the park when LaLa climbed up into her lap. She had not encountered a bunch of loose dogs before. Now she is learning to play.
Rita and LaLa are partners. LaLa depends on Rita for food, shelter and attention. LaLa provides Rita with security and freedom. Love is mutual. "A service dog is a very personal piece of durable medical equipment." Rita says. "Wheelchairs are not soft and do not have feelings. A service dog meets needs that cannot be met by any piece of equipment or even another person. The bond between a good working team is amazingly tight."
Rita, her husband, Jay, and LaLa moved to Payson recently from Tucson. Rita and LaLa enjoy being out and about and can be seen meandering around town or in a store. If you happen to meet up with Rita and LaLa, extend a greeting and ask if she is up to a visit. They are eager to get acquainted.
Christy Wrather is a columnist for the Payson Roundup. She can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by snail-mail at HC1 Box 210, Strawberry, AZ 85544.