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The Gift of Independence

 Copyright 1997 by Gary Wilkes

One day, a hearing impaired friend asked Mike Sapp if he had ever known of a dog being trained to assist a deaf  person. At the time, it didn't seem like a particularly momentous occasion, but it was destined to change Mike's life. Today, almost 20 years and hundreds of service and hearing dogs later, Mike is the CEO and founder of  "Paws With a Cause", in Wayland, Michigan – the largest assistance dog school in the world - and probably the best.

 In the mid 1970's, few people knew that dogs could do more than be guide dogs for the blind. When Mike got started, it wasn't entirely like inventing the wheel – a handful of dogs had been trained to do hearing work and  several people were beginning to experiment with assistance dogs to help physically challenged people. The process of learning how to teach dogs to provide needed assistance was a constantly evolving process.

 To start, Mike had to ask himself, "what should a 'hearing dog' know how to do?" People with the ability to hear  have a difficult time understanding what it is like to be unable to hear or distinguish common sounds. The essence of the problem was to identify which everyday sounds should be recognized by the dog and what the dog should do  when it heard those sounds. With a little thought it is easy to enumerate the things a "hearing" dog should be able to  recognize. First, a doorbell, second, a knock on the door, third, a ringing telephone and fourth, a smoke alarm. Mike knew a deaf woman whose house had been robbed while she slept – she had been unable to hear the  intruders. If the dog could alert the owner to a "break in" it would also be beneficial. That meant teaching a fifth set  of sounds and a fifth behavior. So, the dogs must know at least five sounds, and corresponding behaviors that would help the owner in each separate case. Now he had to choose the behaviors.

 The dog's correct response to the door and the telephone were fairly simple to figure out. The dog hears the sound, gets the person's attention and then leads him back to the source of the sound. But what about the smoke alarm? If  the fire is in the direction of the alarm, the dog would inadvertently take the person into danger. OK, that means that the proper response to a smoke alarm is to get the owner's attention and then lead him to the nearest exit. So  how about an intruder? Does the dog take the owner to the burglar, or does the dog lead the owner out of the house? Maybe a non-hearing Rambo-type would prefer for the dog to bring his baseball bat rather than  "skeedaddle" out the back door.

The fact that service dogs couldn't be trained identically and still give the clients the best quality of service became  apparent. Mike had to make a decision. He could train more dogs if they were all trained the same. The problem  was that no two people are identical in their disabilities or in their lifestyles. To maintain the ideal of providing real independence to their clients, Paws with a Causẻ decided that each client should have some choice over the  behaviors his or her dog would know. As the organization expanded its services to include dogs that could pull wheel chairs, open doors and detect the onset of epileptic seizures, the commitment to personalized training  remained. Each client is video taped and interviewed so the PAWS trainers can provide a dog that offers a wide variety of general assistance and specific behaviors that are tailored to the client.

 Living with a disability can be a seemingly endless struggle to perform even the simplest of tasks. For most people, dropping a pen is an inconsequential event. When you are seated in a powered wheel chair, with limited mobility,  the pen may actually be out of your reach. For a quadraplegic, a heavy commercial door might as well be locked if there is no one there to open it. For the deaf person the sound of a welcome guest's knock on the door may go  unnoticed. Being forced to constantly ask for assistance of others can easily lead to a life of complete dependence.

For the last 20 years, Mike Sapp and the staff at Paws With a Cause ( http://www.pawswithacause.org )  have worked to train dogs to do things like pick up pens, open heavy doors and respond to a knock on the door. When  they train a dog to assist in the mundane tasks of daily living, they know they are creating a far more precious gift  than a highly trained dog - they offer true independence to people with disabilities. By living up to their simple  motto, they have improved the lives of hundreds of people -- "With a "Paws" dog, disability does not mean inability. "


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