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Service with a Smile
By Ellen English

He loves to run that race, Tricia says of her service dog Jelly Bean. The pair came in first in the wheelchair division of the 2002 Race for the Cure, an annual 5K fundraiser for breast cancer research in Washington, DC. It amazes Tricia that any dog, even one as well trained as hers, is not fazed by the throng of 75,000 adrenaline pumped people. That accomplishment is reason enough to be proud but the fact that both of them are cancer survivors gives them cause for celebration each and every day.

While just an infant, Tricia survived a form of cancer called neuroblastoma that involved several surgeries and is the reason she is paraplegic. JB had also endured surgery- with an 8 inch incision- to remove a (cancerous) mast cell tumor, only to have it return eight months later and require radiation. Beginning in mid-September 2002, he withstood a total of nineteen radiation treatments-one each weekday for 3 and half weeks in a row. The treatments required sedation each time and left the affected area of his leg without skin. The area required daily washing, re-packing and bandaging-an excruciating process for him that drained them both. He worked throughout that whole time, Tricia remembers with emotion in her voice, everyday he would stand by that front door-ready to go and do everything asked of him. Along with lavishing her Lab with affection, Tricia administered Chinese herbs and took JB for weekly acupuncture treatments-both designed to boost his immune system. Blessedly, his prognosis is cured, but he does experience some discomfort in the leg, so this year, their Race for the Cure will be done at a walk.

Tricia had been a stubbornly independent person for the first 33 years of her life. It wasnt until she partnered with JB through the organization Fidos for Freedom in Laurel, Maryland, that she realized how much a service dog could add to her life. J.B. came to Fidos at only 8 or 9 weeks of age. He was donated by a breeder who happened to live near the organizations headquarters and thought it would be great to see if one of her puppies could make it into the program. The odds were against it: on average, only 3 out of every 100 dogs are selected based on the temperament, physical condition, and ability that is required to be an assistance dog. JB fell into expert hands- each dog at Fidos is assigned a puppy raiser and JB ended up with the Director of Training herself.

Obedience work began right away. He was raised to only know of himself as an assistance dog, not a pet, Tricia explains. This period with a puppy raiser, usually 12-18 months, allows the dogs time to learn house manners and about the world that they will encounter in their work. They are well socialized during this period to a wide variety of people, places, noises and situations such as fairs, grocery stores and even movie theatres. It is a time to learn whether a dog is afraid of anything and to help them work through it. Retrieving is encouraged from the very beginning since a large part of their job will entail bringing things to their partner. While this comes naturally to a Labrador retriever like JB, the scope and precision of the retrieving these dogs do is far above the average Lab. The puppy raisers have a set of rules to follow that includes not playing mouthy games like tug of war where the puppy wins. Rather, they learn that tug is a fun game to play when opening a refrigerator or pulling off socks. While the dogs receive lots of positive praise, they are taught to be very serious in focusing on the task at hand.

Tricia met JB when he was just 10 months old. I fell in love with him the first time I saw him. He was gangly looking but so smart and I needed a dog that was really focused. I kept denying that he was the one for mehe was so big and Im not! Fidos uses a committee to match the dogs and clients. Part of the process involves observing each client work with each of the dogs currently available in the program. The client is asked to draw a dogs name at random to begin the demonstration of how they work with each dog. There were 5 possible dogs that Tricia might have been paired with. JB, by then 16 months old, was her favorite but she hoped to start with any of the other dogs with whom she wouldnt be quite so attached to the outcome. As luck, or divine intervention, would have it, she chose JBs name first. Despite being nervous, the pair made a lasting impression. All of the dogs will work with anyone, Tricia explains, but when they really care about someone, it shows in how they work and interact with the person. They could see that extra enthusiasm when he worked with me.

The committee matched the pair, who then began the 60 hours of training together that Fidos requires before the dog is allowed to go home with the client. Trish had already completed 60 hours of training prior to being matched with JB. Clients must learn how to work with a dog, including how to be fair and consistent in their handling. The clients often practice with the therapy dogs in the Fidos program- who also act as a great distraction tool for the service dogs in training. As Fidos for Freedom explains, JB was taught the specific skills he would require to meet Tricias needs and she learned how to handle JB and to expand his repertoire of assistance. When JB turned two and passed his physical exam, they began their life together as a team.

Service dogs like JB assist physically challenged individuals by performing a multitude of tasks such as retrieving out-of-reach objects, opening doors, counter-balancing a person who is walking, assisting in chair-to-chair or floor-to-chair transfer, pulling a wheelchair short distances and assisting with dressing or undressing. JB also helps Tricia with household chores like taking out the trash and pulling the hose around the yard to water the garden. Jelly Beans job is full-time he accompanies Tricia almost everywhere and has the right of access under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). He wears a harness that signals him, as well as everyone else, that he is working.

When JB is dressed for work he knows that he must focus all of his attention on Tricia and cannot be distracted from his job. People and pets are asked not to touch, pet, or otherwise interfere with JB while he is working so that he can maintain his focus. JB loves his job because it allows him to go everywhere with his partner doing the things he loves the most. The praise and love that JB receives from Tricia is all the salary that he requires, but he also gets plenty of time off to be a dog. His favorite toy is his Frisbee, which he cant wait to pick up when they get home from work. Tricia will throw it over and over for him but he seems to love carrying it around as much as he does fetching it.

Tricia's busy life keeps Jelly Bean hopping. She hires contractors for training and development for a large financial company in Washington, D.C., and JB accompanies her not only to the office but also on business trips. The pair has flown to Houston, Chicago and Boston as well as Florida to see Tricias Mom. He loves the beach and he loves to body surf. He will jump over a wave, turn around and body surf it back in! He also loves camping and basically anything that Tricia ventures out to do. His can-do attitude is a testament to Fidos for Freedom and their continuous training and support. JB has learned that whatever he does in training, he can do out in the real world, Tricia says with pride. Fidos even set up a tent in their training facility to familiarize the dogs with the concept of camping.

When asked what Jelly Bean means to her and how he has changed her life, Tricia finds it easy to expound the virtues of her Lab. What I love the most about him is his sense of humor. He does something funny every day. He's a silly guy who loves to perform to an audience. As all dog lovers know, our beloved companions bring so much joy to our lives and the more we smile, the more the world smiles back. Often people just stare at someone in a wheelchair, but when you have a service dog, they usually smile. People who get a dog become more outgoing and self confident-the dog gives them both physical and emotional support. People find Tricia more open and approachable since JB joined her life. JB has not only taken me to a new level of independence but has also enhanced my self-esteem and helped me to be a better person.

(JB) is a very special gift that I cherish, deeply love, and respect. I truly dont know what I would do without him in my life. In the few times that we have not been together, I feel as though a part of me is missing. He accomplishes almost every task I request of him with enthusiasm and joy. He shows his love for me through his hard work, intense devotion, and his ability to forgive me for being human.

Tail End:

To get the scoop on Fidos for Freedom, visit their website.

For more information on the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundations Race for the Cure, visit their website.

To learn more about Service Dog access and the Americans with Disabilities Act, visit their website.

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