Thanks to the Baltimore Sun for this article.
Service dogs take job seriously
October 16, 2007
Visit Ann and Geoff Riefe at their West Annapolis home and Theo, half Doberman, half chocolate lab, doesn’t so much greet you as turn himself inside out for you.
His paws leave the ground, and he does this twisting, squirming, figure-eight thing with his body. He is physically happy to see you.
Clearly, Theo is off duty.
You can tell because he isn’t wearing the red, capelike harness that warns, “Assistance Dog. Do Not Pet.”
When Theo is in uniform, he resembles the RCA dog, stonily attentive to his master. Out of uniform, he resembles a kid out of school.
Theo is a service dog, matched with Geoff Riefe by the nonprofit Fidos for Freedom of Laurel.
“We took the hardest-headed dog we could find and matched him with the hardest-headed owner,” Joe Swetnam, executive director of Fidos, says jokingly.
Riefe, 52, was diagnosed in 1995 with ataxia, a disorder of the nervous system that affects coordination, and since then he has lost some of his ability to control his limbs. His speech has deteriorated as well. He uses a walker and a scooter. And he uses Theo, who opens and closes doors for him, helps him dress and undress, fetches things for him and keeps him company while Ann Riefe works.
“We are a lot alike,” says Riefe. “We’re both interested in what’s going on. We like to hang out. I have someone to talk to.
“He has made a lot of things easier for me. But I think he smells better than me.”
While we are all familiar with seeing-eye dogs who guide the blind, Fidos for Freedom has trained some 80 dogs for people like Riefe, who have physical needs, and for deaf people who need someone to alert them when the phone rings, when the doorbell sounds, when a baby cries, or, critically, when a smoke alarm goes off.
Fidos also trains “therapy dogs,” which visit schools, hospitals or nursing facilities. No special helping skills are required of these dogs, but they must be trained to behave perfectly in public places.
Training assistance dogs and matching them with the humans who need them is a long and expensive process. Training takes at least three years and costs $2,500 a year. Each dog is “sponsored” by a donor or with funds raised at the group’s annual Stroll ‘n Roll charity walk. This year’s event is set for Saturday at Lake Elkhorn Park in Columbia.
Puppies are placed with volunteers for a year before they go to live with a trainer for a year. During their third year, they are matched with a client, who does no more than pay $25 and fill out an application. But the client is required to work for at least 120 hours with a dog. Even then, the match might not work. These things are tricky.
“A lot of times, it is the dog who makes the match,” says Swetnam, who suffers from severe arthritis in his legs and has his own assistance dog, Ace.
“With Geoff and Theo, there was this eye contact,” says Swetnam, recognizing that what he is saying sounds kind of strange. “And there was this instant obedience.”
Riefe and Theo must return to Fidos’ Laurel workshop at least twice a quarter to reinforce Theo’s training. At a recent workshop, Riefe was getting Theo used to the idea that he soon might be using a wheelchair.
“Theo turns into the perfect dog the minute he walks in the door,” says Ann Riefe, watching Theo pick up the end of his leash, carry it to Riefe and place it gently in his hand.
She speaks with the rueful expression of a mother whose willful child always charms the neighbors and the teachers at school. Theo doesn’t give her the respect she deserves because he knows she can be his playmate in ways Geoff Riefe cannot.
The role of the assistance dog is dramatic, but the therapy dogs are stars, too. In addition to visiting the sick and the elderly, who brighten with the exchange of affection, the dogs work in schools with third-graders who have trouble reading.
The children, especially those for whom English is a second language, practice reading to the dogs, and their improvement can be so impressive that Swetnam’s 130 dogs and their owners are in demand.