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Thousands of wonderful dogs are relegated to shelters across the United States waiting for someone to find them. All they require is a home offering little more than food, water, and a little attention. These dogs will form a strong bond with their human family. In their relationship with humans, they will thrive on their owner’s approval, relishing the praise, affection and the occasional treat given them. In return, they give loyalty, love, companionship and endless hours of entertainment. But sometimes, these forgotten animals have within them inherent instincts that can be trained and honed into skills that will help mankind in a more dramatic way. They may assist a blind man cross the street safely or help a wheelchair-bound child navigate a school corridor. For some people, assistance with everyday tasks provided by a canine companion can make all the difference in the quality of life and their ability to live independently. The love and companionship given these people is a bonus given freely by the canine companion. Broadway Barks found several groups that use innovative and thoughtful ways to join humans in need and homeless dogs. Here are some of their stories.

David and Max, Illinois

When David was in his 40s, he lost his sight due to a surgical complication. The loss of sight at his age was difficult and subsequently he lost his independence. All David wanted was to be able to walk to get a cup of coffee with friends, or walk to the bus stop to get to work. He needed help to regain his independence and enjoy life again.

Max was a neglected dog picked up by animal control in Quincy, Illinois. His owners got him as a puppy, but he got too big, so they tied him up in the backyard and stopped feeding him. Luckily, a concerned neighbor reported the abuse. Animal control called Paws Giving Independence (PGI), a volunteer organization in the Chicago area, and said they had a 40lb Black Lab that seemed nice and might be good for their program. PGI took Max in and it turned out that he was a Great Dane/Black Lab mix. PGI nursed him back to health and started training him. It took a while at first. Max didn’t know how to walk up and down stairs and had to be carried until he figured it out. He went from 40lbs to a healthy 95lbs with warm, bright eyes and a silky, black coat.

David and Max picked each other. David works the dressing rooms at a local Wal-Mart, and Max goes to work with him every day. Max helps David when he needs to walk around the store, so David no longer needs another associate to hold his arm to guide him. Max even helps David to and from the break room, where co-workers may have an occasional treat waiting for Max. Max also has a nice comfy bed in one of the dressing rooms where he can hang out and rest when he is not needed. Everyone at the store knows David and loves Max. It has been a happy ending for both of them.

None of this would have been possible without the caring and dedicated volunteers at Paws Giving Independence. PGI is a small, local, all volunteer organization based in central Illinois. They train dogs to become service dogs for children and adults with various disabilities. A young organization, PGI started three years ago, but it has already rescued and placed 40 dogs. PGI works with local animal shelters to identify dogs that would be good for the program and that communication is critical to the program’s success. Many of the dogs are saved from euthanasia and go on to lead happy lives and change the lives of those they help with everyday activities.

Ray and Excalibur, Texas

Pastor Ray McCoy suffers from Von Hippel Lindau Syndrome, a rare disease that causes tumors to grow on the spinal cord. Not only do these tumors cause a great deal of chronic pain, they also press the spinal cord and cause Pastor McCoy to black out unexpectedly. One day, Pastor McCoy was running a hot bath to ease the pain brought on by this disease when he passed out and fell into the water. One minute he was leaning over the tub then everything went black. When Pastor McCoy woke, Excalibur, his service dog, was pulling him out of the tub by his ankle. Excalibur, whose legs and chest were soaked by the water still running in the tub, then fetched the phone so Pastor McCoy could call for help.

Excalibur is a black Labrador Retriever who was most likely abused. Pastor McCoy suspects Excalibur had been disciplined with a water hose when he was young because when he first entered his service training he was really afraid of running water. His training and devotion to Pastor McCoy helped Excalibur to overcome his acquired fears in order to help the Pastor. As Pastor McCoy says, “My wife and I and our trainer worked a long time to get him more comfortable around it (running water). It paid off. I could have drowned in that tub.”

Excalibur was a homeless dog living in an animal shelter before Texas Hearing and Service Dogs (THSD), a non-profit organization that rescues dogs from shelters and trains them to assist individuals with hearing or mobility-related disabilities, rescued him. These dogs help their disabled handlers with daily tasks like picking up dropped keys and cell phones, opening doors, and tugging off socks and jackets. Many, like Excalibur, are also trained to call 911 by pushing a button on an alarm system when help is needed and no one is around. Founded in 1988, THSD has rescued an astonishing 600 dogs from uncertain futures and provided them with renewed lives filled with love and service.

Abby and Aengus, Missouri

Abby is a seven-year-old girl with cerebral palsy. As she transitions from walking with a walker to walking with crutches, she often loses her balance. She attends physical therapy sessions and enjoys art, but can get intimidated by the large world around her.

Aengus is a five-year-old Golden Retriever who was left at the pound at 10 weeks of age. A family adopted him and kept him for eight months. Realizing Aengus’ potential, he was taken to CHAMP, Canine Helpers Allow More Possibilities. CHAMP identified qualities in Aengus that made him a perfect candidate to become a service dog. He had an affinity for people, especially children, and he was eager to please. CHAMP trained Aengus and he was eventually placed with a woman named Dorothy who had severe Rheumatoid Arthritis. But after several years Dorothy became too ill to care for Aengus, so he had to find another family. Once again CHAMP came through and introduced Aengus to Abby. They formed a bond right away. Abby was a natural dog handler and Aengus took to her as well. He retrieves art supplies for Abby and accompanies her to her physical therapy sessions. He gives her emotional and physical support, helping her stay balanced and performing tasks he was never trained to do, but senses that Abby needs. The tight bond and loving relationship between Abby and Aengus exemplifies the CHAMP vision, which is that “at the end of their time together, both partners—dog and human, have had a better life because of the other.”

These stories illustrate the healing power of the human/animal bond. The non-profit organizations described above understand this bond and work tirelessly to cultivate it and help both the animal and the humans in need live happier lives. These dogs were the lucky ones. Someone saw in them something greater than their scruffy fur and sad faces. They saw potential, the same potential that is present in the many dogs living in shelters today. Will someone see their potential?

By Charlene Sloan

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