'Good boy!': Program pairs service dogs with health care system

September 15, 2014

Brian Boone, 39, who lost his lower left leg while serving as a soldier in Afghanistan in 2011, holds the leash to Brindle, his two-year-old Labrador-golden retriever mix at Home Depot in Irving, Texas on Sept. 3, 2014. He was part of a group taking part in a field trip to learn how to work their dogs in public.

DALLAS ó Brian Boone is practicing his silly voice. The 39-year-old soldier, who lost his lower left leg while serving in Afghanistan, looks down at Brindle, a 2-year-old Labrador-golden retriever mix ó and highly trained service dog.

"Good boy," says Boone. Sarah Koch, Brindleís trainer, looks on. "I want you to get a little silly with your praise," she says. Boone tries again. "Goooooood booooooooy," he coos. Brindle looks up with doe eyes at his new master and looks all too pleased with himself.

Brindle and Boone are one of four teams united through a partnership between Canine Companions for Independence and Baylor Scott and White Health in Irving, Tex.. They believe itís the first partnership between a service dog organization and a health care system in the U.S., says Corey Hudson, CEO of Canine Companions.

It costs $50,000 to train each service dog. Canine Companions, based in Santa Rosa, Calif., typically provides the service free of charge. In the new partnership, Baylor Scott and White Health finds patients who could benefit from having a service dog, covers the cost of training the dogs and their owners, and supports them once they are home.

Thereís a need for service dogs among their patients, says Joel Allison, CEO of Baylor Scott and White Health. "It ties in to our mission," he says. "We think of it as part of our commitment to serve and meet the needs of all the patients that we serve."

More than 25,000 Americans use service dogs, according to Assistance Dogs International, a coalition of assistance dog organizations. The animals are trained to help children and adults living with physical and mental disabilities.

Some service dogs are able to sense oncoming seizures and protect their owners from falls. Others help the visually impaired. Dogs raised by Canine Companions are trained to pull wheelchairs, pick keys off the floor and tug off clothes.

The Baylor-Canine Companions partnership began this week by training four clients. The group plans to expand to 60 clients next summer when a specially built facility with six rooms and 24 kennels will open in Irving.

Boone is thrilled at his prescription for a dog. Lower back pain makes it difficult for him to pick things up, and he hopes Brindle will save him "lots of wear and tear" on his back.

Recently, Boone was one of four Texans being matched with a service dog. He was joined by Stacey Odom, 45, a special education teacher; Melanie Knecht, 24, a music therapy intern; and Mackenzie Dunckelman, 13.

They were selected from hundreds of applicants because their physical needs matched the help that Canine Companion service dogs can offer.

The Texas location saves Boone and his classmates a trip to Canine Companionsí Southwest region campus in Oceanside, Calif., for the weeklong training. "When they told me that pretty much everything was here right now that just was even more amazing," Boone says.

He says he heard about Canine Companions through a friend at the Center for the Intrepid at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, a program for soldiers who have suffered burns or amputations.

"That friend has the same injury as me," he says. "Heís a below-the-knee amputee, and I saw how well-behaved and helpful his dog was."

Boone was an explosives ordnance disposal officer when he was injured in 2011. "Itís like the Army bomb squad," he says. "We took care of improvised explosive devices."

It was an IED that severed his left leg and damaged nerves in both of his shoulders.

Boone was unable to use his right arm for a year. Months of rehabilitation and physical therapy helped him regain some strength, but he hopes that working with Brindle will make him even stronger.

One recent morning, in a long classroom at Baylor Health Center at Irving-Coppell, Brindle is joined by four other Labrador-golden retriever mixes. (The fifth dog serves as a backup in case one of the other dogs doesnít pass muster.) All sit silently in their kennels at the edge of the room looking out at Boone and his three classmates.

A bark would mean instant failure. Only 40 percent of the dogs raised by Canine Companions graduate from the nine-month training program. The dogs that make it to Texas are the cream of the crop.

Not everyone in the classroom needs a service dog for themselves. Stacey Odom, a special education teacher from Bullard, hopes a service dog will facilitate her work with autistic children.

Odom is the first to volunteer for the drills that Koch asks the class to practice. The service dogs are taught at least 40 commands and the new students must learn the proper sequence of words to help the dogs respond.

"Illia. Down. Donít! Down. Good girl!" says Odom to Illia, a shiny black dog. "I just want to cuddle her," says Odom. She fights the urge and instead asks Illia to obey a second command. Illia obeys and eagerly plants herself on the schoolteacherís foot.

Odom and Boone have waited more than seven months for this opportunity. Theyíre the lucky ones. Canine Companions receives more than 100 applications a month, says Simi Balter, program manager at the organizationís Southwest regional office.

"We get to witness small miracles," says Balter. She recalls a child with learning difficulties who, having never spoken before, uttered his first word to a service dog. Then there was the stroke victim who moved a previously paralyzed arm to stroke a service dog.

Boone isnít asking for a miracle. But he says itís not just physical tasks that Brindle will help him with ó itís the mental task of healing. "Dogs are very soothing," he says. "Especially these calm dogs. Just being around them brings your spirit up. Thatís hard to beat."



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