Thanks to WRAL.com for this story!
Veteran Guide Dog Overcomes Doubts to Learn New Tasks
By JAMES MacPHERSON
JUD, N.D. Harley pays no mind to the saying that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. The black Labrador retriever, who turns 7 years old next month, has learned more than tricks – he is trained both as a guide dog and as a dog that can respond to seizures suffered by his handler.
Trainers at Great Plains Assistance Dogs Foundation in Jud and at Guiding Eyes for the Blind Inc., of Yorktown Heights, New York, call it a first, and a happy collaboration.
Harley spent several weeks last year at Great Plains in Jud, a tiny southeastern North Dakota community of about 75 people that’s surrounded by farm fields. It’s where Harley added to his guide dog repertoire the ability to activate alert switches and radios through repetition, treats and praise.
Because of Harley’s age and the differences in training methods for dogs working with people who are blind and people who suffer seizures, trainers at first doubted he could be both a guide dog and a seizure dog.
Not Jes Smith, who has been paired with Harley since 2002.
Smith, 20, of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, has been blind since the age of 5. He had to drop out of college when he began having epileptic seizures in 2004.
“The scary thing about epilepsy is you have no control over anything,” Smith said.
Doctors told Smith’s mother, Pam, “If he were my son I would not let him go to school,” he said. “They suggested somebody be by my side 24/7.”
Smith knew that somebody was Harley.
“I was willing to take the chance on Harley,” Smith said. “I was kind of desperate, obviously. This was a matter of life and death for me. Something had to be done.”
Late last year, trainers from the facilities in North Dakota and New York met with Smith and Harley at their North Carolina home.
Micheal Goehring, executive director of Great Plains Assistance Dogs, said he wasn’t sure if Harley, who was 5 years old at the time, could be taught new tasks.
“I was skeptical until I met Jes and Harley. At that point, I knew it was doable,” Goehring said. “I know what I need in a dog and I know what I need in an individual.”
Harley’s intelligence and his handler’s bond with the dog made the team a good candidate for the cross-training, Goehring said.
Trainers from New York and Jud worked with Harley at both locations before the dog was returned to Jes several weeks later.
Guide dogs are taught to keep their handlers safe by stopping at changes of elevation, stopping at each block and avoiding obstacles, said Kathy Zubrycki, director of training at Guiding Eyes for the Blind, which places about 160 dogs a year.
Seizure dogs are trained to respond to handlers’ emergencies.
“I don’t want to say we were skeptical, but it had never been done before,” Zubrycki said of Harley’s training as both a seizure dog and guide dog. “We all went into it with an optimistic attitude.”
Goehring, a former chef and hunting dog trainer, has known the power of canine companionship since he was a boy. He used to sneak his small dog under his jacket into a nursing home to comfort an elderly friend who had to give up his own pet.
“I was only 10 years old then, but I still remember the emotion,” Goehring said.
Great Plains Assistance Dogs graduates up to a dozen service dogs on alternating years, Goehring said.
It has placed 116 dogs in 41 states, and two in Canada, since Goehring helped open the facility in 1990.
Along with teaching dogs to respond to seizures, Great Plains also trains its canine pupils to perform other duties for people with disabilities. The dogs can open doors, hit or pull emergency switches, pull shopping carts and wheelchairs, or fetch items as small as a dime off the floor.
Harley is now able to push a pedal in Smith’s home that can make an emergency call if Smith has a seizure. Harley also can pull a rip cord on his dog vest that activates an alarm and a two-way radio that can be staffed by family or friends.
Just knowing Harley is there for her son has lessened anxiety and the chance of seizures, Pam Smith said.
“There is no doubt in my mind that Harley would do what needed to be done,” she said.
Though he’s one of the most highly trained dogs around, Harley is far from a four-legged robot, his handler said.
“He can be mischievous,” Jes Smith said of his best buddy.
Harley can’t keep away from doughnuts on the kitchen counter, even though he knows it’s a no-no.
Piano music is another story.
Smith, who is a pianist, said it’s common for Harley to fall asleep and snore at his feet during performances.
“He could care less about the piano,” Smith said.
Smith returned to classes last semester at a technical college, with Harley by his side.
“We’ve been blessed in the past year,” Pam Smith said. “Jes has his confidence and his independence back.”
And he’s got Harley.
“Harley loves Jes – he sleeps with him, plays with him and is so in tune to Jes,” Pam Smith said.