[Story and photos by Mike Foley: Published originally in the BYU-Hawaii online “Newsroom,” March 5, 2009]
Brigham Young University Hawaii Honors students learned in their colloquium on March 4 about a unique program in nearby Kahuku — one of only 40 in the world — fully accredited to train highly skilled service dogs to help disabled people, and how they differ from other assistance, therapeutic and “seeing eye” guide dogs as well as other service animals.
Susan Luehrs [pictured at right], Executive Director of Hawaii Fi-Do, which is based in the makai parking lot of Kahuku Medical Center, was a special education teacher at Kahuku High when she first got involved with training the unique dogs in 1999 as a way to help her students. She brought Ehu [pictured below: the name refers to its hair color], a year-old Labradoodle that is part of the program, who lay quietly near Luehrs for most of the presentation. Labradoodles are an evolving hybrid originally cross-bred in Australia between Labrador Retrievers and Poodles for their temperament and low-shedding hypoallergenic fur.
“Just touching a dog in general gives people a calmness. It takes the heartbeat down and soothes respiration,” said Luehrs, explaining Ehu’s presence was also “a training experience. Thank you very much for letting me come here. Part of our mission is to educate the public as well as train and certify skilled dogs for people with disabilities other than blindness.” Those skills include retrieving things, opening some kinds of doors, turning lights on and off with their noses, picking up clothes off the floor, helping people with balance, hearing things, and even making 911 emergency calls on specially equipped telephones.
Luehrs said service dogs can also give seizure and diabetic alerts, and “pre-detect heart attacks. We know they can be trained to detect cancer, drugs and bombs, and the Department of Agriculture uses them to sniff out certain fruits; but we have yet to discover what else they can do. Three-to-four dogs out of every 500 have these alerting skills without being trained. We have not tapped the total abilities of what dogs can do for man.”
Luehrs explained about 25 volunteers help run the program. “Nobody gets paid, and our wait-list right now is three-to-five years for people in Hawaii wanting dogs.” She pointed out that grants and donations help pay the expenses of the program, and that recipients usually also pay training fees but they do not pay for the animals, although a Labradoodle puppy can cost approximately $2,000. For that reason, Hawaii Fi-Do now breeds its own dogs. She added that Ehu has already demonstrated a sensitivity to alert, and for that reason will be kept as part of the breeding program.
“We start when they’re eight-week-old puppies. We see who’s brave, shy, bold and curious. About 80 percent of the Labradoodles qualify,” she continued, showing a video clip of Kai, an “assistance dog” who often walks the halls of Kahuku Medical Center. “Before he goes, he gets groomed to make sure he’s nice and clean. He has therapy with anybody who wants to. He’ll interact with the patients, the doctors and the staff. He pretty much has the run of the hospital. He serves the community with unconditional love and helping out others.”
Luehrs said the trained dogs have recently found another use, “especially now with our wounded warriors coming back. We are finding that the young soldiers would rather be seen with a dog than a pair of crutches. So, they have turned to the service dog industry. There are 160 of us [in the U.S.] who are members of a national organization that trains to standards. That means we have all agreed to the same type of testing and health issues, using quality dogs, teaching over 90 commands and making sure these dogs are ready for public access.”
For example, she pointed out that U.S. federal law stipulates a service dog must be trained “with a specific skill that will address a disability… When I get a call, the first question I ask is, do you have a disability. A lot of people do not understand the difference between a service, therapy and companion dog”:
“A service dog can go out in public, anywhere a seeing-eye dog can go,” including on airplanes. In fact, Luehrs said some people tell her they want to make their pets into service dogs so they can fly in coach; “but a dog that’s not trained can give service dogs a bad name.”
Luehrs also noted the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) “does not define what a service animal is,” consequently some people claim to have service pigs, monkeys and even mini-horses. “Right now it’s a very ‘gray’ law, and people are taking advantage of it, claiming any animal…that does something to help them with their particular disability become more independent, then yes, by law it is.” However, for example, she warned monkeys bite, so their teeth must be removed, it takes many years to train them to help quadriplegics “and they cannot be toilet trained, whereas we can train these dogs to go to the bathroom on command.”
Luehrs said organized training of such animals began with the more familiar guide dogs for the blind program that started in World War I, and has since evolved into many other areas. For example, more recently she has used at risk students at Kahuku High to help work with the animals at Hawaii Fi-Do, and in some places they have found the dogs can act as “hooks” to getting children to read to them.
She also said people ask all the time if they can pet the dogs. “Yes, if they’re service dogs,” she replied, “but seizure and guide dogs, no; they need to be alert. We like people to interact, but always ask first.”