dog Essie watches Ella Straka, who has multiple
sclerosis, as Straka pays bills in her Naperville,
Ill., home. "She's never off-duty,"
Ill. — While the Straka family chats around the
kitchen table, its 5-year-old German shepherd, Essie,
relaxes in her corner doggy bed. Life is good.
without a sound, Essie stands, her eyes fixed on Ella
Straka, 64. Essie is one step ahead of Straka, still
seated but about to cross the room to the coffee pot. As
her service dog, Essie knows Straka, a retired nurse who
has multiple sclerosis, might need help.
never off-duty," said Straka, whose Naperville,
Ill., family also includes her husband, Steve; their
five grown children; a border collie named Hermione, and
trainer, Jack Giambrone of Elmwood Park, Ill.-based
Barking Angels Service Dog Foundation, said he knew she
would be ideal for Straka because "they’re both
easygoing. And Essie’s so nonchalant with other dogs,
I thought she’d get along with Hermione."
is one of 78 service dogs Giambrone has trained, after
adopting them for his clients (called
"handlers") from shelters. "I’ve worked
with dogs all my life, so I know when I meet one if he’ll
work," he said. "He’s friendly but not
crazy, makes eye contact and isn’t fearful."
trumps breed, said Giambrone, and must match the job.
"A very affectionate dog may work for a child with
Down syndrome, but constant kissing may annoy an adult
with anxiety," he said.
Essie was "as much for me as for her," said
Straka. Giambrone taught Essie commands while she bonded
service-dog trainer works with the handler throughout
the dog’s lifetime, adding skills as needed. "One
girl needed her dog to learn what to do when they were
in driver’s ed," said Giambrone. "Then, he
had to learn how to help her at college."
one keeps a national service-dog count, but the number
grows as awareness increases, said spokespeople from
leading national organizations, Wayland, Mich.-based
Paws with a Cause and Santa Rosa, Calif.-based Canine
Companions for Independence.
said it costs about $1,200 to $2,500 for a service dog,
depending on how much training it needs. Sometimes a
church or service club helps pay.
Americans with Disabilities Act defines "service
dog," but trainers issue their certifications and
dogs work one-on-one with their handlers, guiding deaf
or blind people, helping those in wheelchairs navigate,
predicting seizures or telling diabetic people if they
dog" is an umbrella term that includes services
dogs, police dogs and dogs who help the community by,
for example, finding cadavers, lost people or bombs, or
by providing therapy at hospitals or in courtrooms.
law, a service dog can go wherever the public is
allowed. Essie has never been denied access, said Straka.
ADA says it’s legal to ask, ‘Is that a service dog?’
or ‘What’s that dog trained to do?’ but you can’t
ask about the person or her disabilities," Straka
said. "It’s confusing, so people just don’t
is a good day for Straka and Essie because they were out
of bed by 8 a.m. "Some days, I don’t feel that
well, so Essie adapts," said Straka, whose symptoms
include fatigue, muscle weakness and numb hands and
Straka needs help getting up from a chair, she bear-hugs
Essie, who pulls her up and forward. "I saw Jack
demonstrate that at an expo and I was sold," Straka
recalled. "Before that, I didn’t realize how
service dogs could help people with MS."
Straka feels up to it, she and Essie run errands in the
"C-A-R," she said. "Because of Hermione,
we spell a lot of words."
uses a cane or her battery-operated scooter at stores,
while Essie follows. "She figured out how to stay
behind me in narrow aisles," said Straka.
merchants love Essie, said Straka. "Once, she had
to stay home because she had a stomachache, and everyone
asked if she was OK," she said.
a month, Straka and Essie join Giambrone and some of his
other clients at an area mall. "Then, the dogs can
get used to elevators, crowds, noise," said Straka.
doesn’t mind being stared at by strangers, said Straka,
"but some dogs have to learn to tolerate
that." While the other dogs feared Santa Claus last
year, Essie had her picture taken with him.
job, said Straka, includes being a service-dog
you see a service dog, ask if you can pet her,"
said Giambrone. "Usually, she’s working and you
shouldn’t. But sometimes it’s part of her job to be
an icebreaker. A mentally disabled child (handler), for
example, might not meet people otherwise."
the Strakas go out to dinner, Straka calls ahead to
request a table. "With a booth, there might not be
a place for Essie to sit underneath, so she lays low on
the seat next to me," said Straka. "No one
knows she’s there until we leave."
since joining Straka, Essie has flown with her to Dallas
to visit friends. Straka reserves a bulkhead seat so
Essie can sit on the floor next to her.
befriending their Dallas friends’ dogs, Essie got a
surprise. "They ran out the back door and Essie ran
right into their pool," said Straka. "She was
in over her head, which she did not like."
day includes a walk with Hermione and either Steve or
Straka’s daughter, Anastasia.
it’s bedtime, Straka puts one hand on the stair rail
and one on Essie. "She gives me enough stability to
get upstairs," said Straka.
Essie could describe her perfect day, said Straka,
"it would be ‘shop, nap, walk.’" Or, she
might tally her daily shoe count. "The most
mischievous thing she does is put our shoes in her
bed," said Straka. "Once, she had so many in
there, she couldn’t lie down."
year, the Strakas plan to move to a smaller house in
Florida. "For me, it’ll have no stairs,"
said Straka. "For Essie, it’ll have no backyard
ponds with alligators. And no pool."
Essie can no longer work, she’ll become the Strakas’
pet and a younger service dog will join the family.
Meantime, said Straka, "I depend on her and she
depends on me. That’s a good feeling."