Service Dogs: Changing Lives One 4-Legged Friend at a Time
Eric Potter and Louie
Jamie Hedman and Opus
Luke Morris and Polar
Most people are familiar with guide dogs for the visually impaired or even mobility dogs for those who are wheelchair-bound. Both are extremely important, but at Service Dogs of Virginia, trainers are constantly finding new ways dogs can help their people.
From pups that assist autistic children with development to diabetic alert dogs, Service Dogs of Virginia is changing lives one four-legged friend at a time.
Service Dogs of Virginia Executive Director and founder Peggy Law said, "They provide a sense that somebody's got their back. Their best buddy is with them at all times. They really enable that person to take a step that they just struggled with prior to that."
Training a service dog is no easy task. At Service Dogs of Virginia, it is all done through the work of volunteers and your donations. It costs around $20,000 to train each service dog that the Charlottesville nonprofit places. For the people who get those specially trained pooches, it doesn't cost a cent.
Opus, a 4-year-old Labrador Retriever, has never pulled anyone from a burning building but he is a lifesaver just the same. Opus is a diabetic alert dog and can smell when his owner Jamie Hedman's blood sugar gets to unhealthy levels. He sounds the alarm before the situation turns dangerous.
For Jamie, leaving the house was a gamble before Opus was a part of her life. Her blood sugar levels are wildly erratic and having a serious attack is a very real possibility. It was a constant concern for her and her family. Opus has changed that.
"He definitely has saved me many rides in an ambulance. He's saved my life multiple times." Hedman said, "I just have a sense of security that was robbed from me. My family has a sense of security that was taken from them and that's really important."
Opus is just one example of the amazing things service dogs can do. They can help with many physical disabilities. Two years ago, Luke Morris dove into a river and broke his back. He has limited movement in his arms, and cannot move his legs. Now, Polar, his 5-year-old Labrador Retriever, provides a helping hand. From taking off a sweatshirt to getting the door, it adds up to a level of independence that Luke and his mom Linda thought they had lost.
Luke said, "I was really dependent on other people. If I dropped something, they had to be there to give it to me, take my sweatshirt on and off, I need help. But ever since we got him, I don't need to ask people to help me as much as I used to."
Linda said, "If his chair got stuck, or if he came out of his chair, I worried that he would be there for a while unless I kept an eye on him. Now with Polar, if Polar's with him, I don't worry at all."
Service Dogs of Virginia volunteers say money should not be the obstacle to independence, a motto that Linda Morris witnessed firsthand. She says they are proof donations to Service Dogs of Virginia truly change lives in the community: "In our case, when Luke was injured, it becomes a huge financial hardship. You have a lot of things to buy that you didn't know you would ever have to buy. So without the donations and the volunteers, Luke would have never gotten Polar, because he got him free of charge. He certainly could not have paid the $20,000 it takes to raise a service dog."
Service Dogs of Virginia is continuously branching out, finding new ways their dogs can help, including assisting autistic children with development and socialization. Autism affects one out of every 150 children, with no known cause or cure. But there is a relatively new four-legged tool to help families coping with this difficult diagnosis.
Seven-year-old Eric Potter has autism. He got his service dog Louie, a Labrador Retriever, a week ago. Dogs like Louie are specially trained by Service Dogs of Virginia to assist in the socialization and development of kids with autism.
From quieting a child with non-verbal cues - like a step on the foot - to using physical body weight to quell a temper tantrum, these dogs are there for autistic children who may otherwise have a hard time communicating. For Eric and his family, Louie represents a new way of life.
Eric's mother Rachel said, "I think children with autism in particular hear a lot of 'no', 'don't', and 'stop' over and over and over again. I think having an alternative to ‘no', ‘don't', ‘stop' all the time, when it becomes a quiet non-verbal cue from the dog, becomes more socially acceptable when you are in a public place, and calls less attention to the child, when it's the dog that's able to give that signal."
But according to Eric, that's just one of the ways Louie is helping him daily. "He gives me squeezes when I'm sad or upset, he tells me to pay attention, and he also gives me hugs and kisses," he said.
Rachel stated, "We're able to see Eric in a way which is much like you would see any child that might not have autism, so we see Eric just as any other child, which is nice."
Thanks to Service Dogs of Virginia whatever the need, a dog can be there to assist. Because of their loyalty, ability, and desire to please us, there is truly no limit to what they can do.
Click here to learn more about what Service Dogs of Virginia does, to apply for a dog, or to donate.
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