Service Dog Offers Alternative, Aids Child with CP

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For four-year-old Lucas Carlson, using a walker or crutches was a part of his daily routine. That is, until he met his service dog, Balto.

Lucas has cerebral palsy, and he has previously relied on walkers and crutches to help him balance while he walks. His mother, Michelle Carlson, said Lucas would walk too fast and improperly with his walker and crutches, which is why she was interested in finding an alternative method for Lucas to learn to take independent steps.

Carlson began looking into service dog organizations, but most required that Lucas be at least five years old, and the waiting list exceeded three years. Then Carlson received an e-mail from a fellow member of Parent to Parent, a group for parents of disabled children, which told her about an organization in Aurora, Colorado, called Bighorn Assistance Dogs. Carlson decided to give Bighorn a call.

Bighorn Assistance Dogs is a nonprofit organization which places service dogs free of charge. Minnette Topham founded the organization, which she operates out of her home, in 2003. She began training service dogs eight years ago after she had a mild stroke and realized the need for service dogs.

"It really gives the person a sense of independence," said Topham of the service dogs. "People feel independent enough to be able to go places on their own without relying on someone else."

Service Dog Shortage

Despite the need for service dogs, there is quite a shortage, according to Jorjan Powers, spokeswoman for the Assistance Dog Institute, Santa Rosa, California. Her organization is a college that offers master of science and associate of science degrees in assistance dog education and human-canine life science. Through these programs, the Assistance Dog Institute aims to increase the number of qualified dog trainers so that more dogs may be placed. Current waiting times for service dogs run from three to five years.

Powers says that the value of a service dog goes far beyond just having an animal to pick up dropped objects.

"We've all heard the saying 'dogs are a man's best friend,' but for service dogs, it's just light years above that," said Powers. "Besides the physical tasks these dogs help their owners with, often the emotional help they give is the most important."

In order to provide more service dogs, the Assistance Dog Institute has its own breeding program.

However, unlike the Assistance Dog Institute, Bighorn Assistance Dogs does not breed its dogs. All its dogs are adopted from shelters, rescue organizations, and people who can no longer keep their pets. Topham looks for dogs that are large enough to turn on lights and pull wheelchairs, but which also have mild temperaments and can adjust to various situations. At press time, Topham had placed three dogs, including Balto.

Lucas Gets Help

Lucas practices walking with his new friend Balto.
Lucas practices walking with his new friend Balto.

Topham first learned of the Carlsons when Michelle Carlson called to inquire about Bighorn's dogs and when she would be able to apply for one. Like most organizations, Topham required that children be at least five years old in order to be considered for a dog. However, Balto, a three-year-old greyhound, had been trained, but had nowhere to go. Since Lucas badly needed a counter-balance dog, and Topham had one ready, she agreed to meet with the Carlsons. When they met at the zoo just two months after the initial phone call, Lucas and Balto hit it off, and a match was made.

Balto now helps Lucas to balance when he walks, and he helps Lucas with difficult walking situations, such as stepping down from curbs. He is used for bracing when Lucas falls; Balto has been fitted with a harness that Lucas grabs onto, which makes it easier for Lucas to get up. Now instead of crawling to the wall to pull himself up, Lucas braces against Balto to get back on his feet.

The addition of Balto has also helped Lucas's confidence in social situations.

"He does notice that people look at the dog instead of staring at him using a walker," Carlson explained.

Carlson also points out that a counter-balance dog gives people the chance to see service dogs used in a less traditional manner. "Everyone is used to dogs that retrieve and dogs that pull wheelchairs. With Balto, people get to see a different way that service dogs can be useful."

Dogs, Trainers Benefit

Lucas practices walking with his new friend Balto.
Lucas practices walking with his new friend Balto.

While Lucas obviously derives benefits from his relationship with Balto, Topham thinks that the dogs feel a certain appreciation for their owners as well.

"It's much nicer to rely on a dog, and the dogs are happy to do it," said Topham. "It saves the life of the dog, and I think they're equally as grateful."

Topham, an animal lover, also benefits from this type of work. Though she grows attached to the dogs she trains and has a hard time letting them go, she is consoled by the knowledge that she has a hand in saving the lives of dogs that may not otherwise have a chance.

"In my lifetime, I have had maybe a dozen pets," explained Topham, "but through this work, I can save maybe a hundred. That makes it all worth it."

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