Dogs are so eager to help us in any way they can. They only need to be taught.
Sean has Cerebral Palsy. Though he is 23, he has the physical ability of a four-month-old child. He cannot speak or eat, but his face and eyes express a happy, responsive, young man.
I had met the remarkable Sean before, but on this trip to Washington, I met his buddy, Jeeter. A Labrador/retriever cross, Jeeter is a Canine Companion for Independence, who has been specifically trained to meet the specific needs of people like Sean.
Sean Stephens attended school until he turned 18, during which time he had ample interaction with people. Without school, Sean's parents searched for ways to continue the people contact. Jeeter has filled that void. Jeeter attracts attention as he walks along beside Sean's wheelchair. People stop and ask if they can pet the dog. The person with him, usually one of his parents, tells them to ask Sean. Sean immediately brightens up and raises his eyes, which indicates a yes, always with a big smile. The interaction brought about by the dog helps strangers realize that there is a real person under the handicap.
Ellen and Jack are devoted to making the best possible life for their son. They are also committed to helping people understand the plight of the handicapped and the wonderful contributions canine companions can make. Sean, Ellen and Jeeter go to the children's library once a week. The kids snuggle up to Jeeter on the sofa and read books to Sean. Sean listens and responds with his huge smile.
Joe Vespaziani, my son-in-law and a stand-up comic, worked with Sean during his school years, and the bond between them continues. Sean always laughs at Joe's jokes. Ellen and Joe, aided by Sean and Jeeter, are putting together a taped presentation, which will be available for groups, and hopefully will appear on public television. It will also be used as a training aid for those entering special education and related fields. Ellen, Sean and Jeeter are always delighted to present programs for schools, service groups or anyone who will have them.
Jeeter spent the first year-and-a-half of his life in a puppy-raising home. He then moved on to eight months of intense training at the Canine Companions for Independence facility in Santa Rosa, Calif. The majority of dogs don't make the grade, but Jeeter passed. Sean and his family were accepted into the program, and met all the available dogs. They were matched up with Jeeter, and the training began. Although Jeeter is a companion for Sean, because of his limitations, Ellen and Jack are the ones who are responsible for Jeeter's continued training, and guiding him in his duties.
Service dogs are taught a series of basic commands: behind, up, jump, side, stand, visit and lap. "Visit" means to put his head on a person's lap. "Lap" means that he puts his front legs and chest up on the lap. The dogs also learn how to open and close doors, and any other specific tasks required by the person receiving the dog. They may not eat until given permission to do so. Jack once got involved in a phone conversation after putting Jeeter's food dish down. Half an hour later, the dog was still waiting patiently for permission to eat.
Ellen is a prosecuting attorney. She frequently saw juveniles in drug court, and young children involved in sexual abuse cases who were frightened and unable to speak. After one particularly tough case, she asked if she could bring Jeeter into the courtroom to sit beside a young child called to testify. Once the dog was beside her, the child relaxed and was able to answer the tough questions. Since that time, Jeeter goes regularly to court. He has made such a difference, another service dog is now working with the court full time.
However, Jeeter's main focus is Sean. They sleep together, and Jeeter normally has his head under Sean's hand for a modified pet. Jeeter's primary job is to bring people into Sean's world and keep him smiling. He does his job well. "Jeeter has added to the quality of life for the whole family," Ellen said.
For more information about Canine Companions for Independence, go to www.canine companions.org.
Christy Powers 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.