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Highland-raised service dog finds new home, and purpose, in Waldorf

When faced with arriving visitors, most dogs will bubble over with excitement, exuberantly sniffing, licking and jumping up to say hello. At just 8 months old, Odie, a 64-pound yellow lab, regards new arrivals patiently – though there's a glint of eager friendliness in his stare.

Odie isn't some sort of Buddha dog, calm of his own volition. He's being trained as an assistance animal for people with disabilities as part of a program called Canine Companions for Independence, and one of the first commands he's had to learn is to refrain from enthusiastic greetings.

Over the next year or so, he'll learn a lot more, from the classics (rolling over and sitting still) to more complicated matters, such as distinguishing left from right.

Erin Geoghan, 21, is spending the summer before her senior year at the University of Richmond teaching Odie the ropes at her family's Highland home.

Sometimes it's a bit of challenge.

"He's a boy – he's so rambunctious," she said as she watched him chase a tennis ball in her yard on a warm July evening. But, she added, "he's so smart."

Odie is the second service dog raised by the Geoghans, a Highland family who recently had to say goodbye to their first Canine Companion, Heidi. Heidi graduated the CCI program in May and was matched with a new owner in Waldorf.

Forty-eight miles south of Highland, Michael Sack Sr. was in need of a new service dog when he was matched with Heidi. His trusty companion, Gibson, had slipped on ice and broken a leg after 10 years at Sack's side, and was having trouble staying on his feet for extended periods of time.

Sack and his wife decided to apply for a new companion dog so that Gibson could retire. They ended up bringing Heidi home to Waldorf.

Both the Geoghans and the Sacks say the CCI program has changed their lives in the best way possible.

In Highland, Erin Geoghan first approached her parents, Peter and Jo Ann Geoghan, with the idea of raising a service puppy as a senior in high school. At first, they thought she had a bit too much on her plate for the responsibility.

"When she first came to us… she was playing three sports and she was class president, and we had no time and she had no time – so we said no and put it off," Peter Geoghan said.

But when Erin asked again as a freshman in college, they figured the timing might just work out perfectly – she could raise the puppy over the summer and then they could take the lead when Erin, their youngest daughter, headed off to school and left them with an empty nest. The family traveled to CCI's northeastern regional headquarters in Long Island, and soon they were bringing home Heidi, a sweet-natured black lab.

Erin and Heidi bonded right away.

"All dogs are loving, I would say, but there was something different about Heidi and the relationship that I had with her, that I've never had with any animal before or human," she recalled. "She was energetic and would love to play, but as soon as you put her vest and Gentle Leader [training collar] on, she knew it was time to work. She would be right at my side all the time and you could tell that she wanted to do well and make me proud."

Over 18 months, the Geoghans trained Heidi to work as a service dog, teaching her commands geared to making life easier for people with disabilities.

These include "lap" – a command asking the dog to put her paws in her owner's lap to facilitate dressing as well as "heel" and "side," commands requesting the dog to sit on his owner's left or right side, respectively.

Even some simple commands, such as "roll over" and "shake," can have unexpected uses to someone whose mobility is limited.

For example, rolling over can help someone who uses a wheelchair easily examine a dog's paws, and "shake" can help them to untangle a dog from her leash.

In Waldorf, Heidi's new owner, Mike Sack, says she can pick up objects as small as a credit card. He has multiple sclerosis and says he relies on his service dogs to help him when he drops objects on the ground.

"I'm always picking up things. And some days when I'm leaning forward to pick up stuff, I'm picking myself up," he said.

Sack said he's also teaching Heidi to alert his wife, Michelle, in case of a medical emergency.

Gibson, his retired service dog, saved his life by doing just that when the Sacks were on vacation in Texas nine years ago.

When Mike started having difficulty breathing one night, Gibson woke up Michelle, who rushed him to the hospital.

"According to the hospital, I wouldn't have made it to morning if they hadn't gotten me down there," he said.

Gibson was a "nervous wreck" until his owner came home from the hospital, Sack recalled. But when he did return, "that dog smiled.

"I don't care what anybody says, these dogs smile," he said.

Sack's bond with Gibson, and the one he's building with Heidi, is a decision he's never regretted.

"They're companions, they're there, they become part of your family, literally," he said. "You get these dogs when they're 2 years old and you basically watch them grow up. ... And you get to the point to where if you don't have them around you feel lost."

Despite the emotional difficulty of having to give up the dogs they raise, the Geoghans haven't regretted their decision either.

"The reason that I decided to do CCI was not to get a free puppy," Erin said. "Going into the program, you know you're doing this so that eventually, hopefully, somebody who really needs a companion like that will have one available to them."

And last week, the Geoghans were able to see their months of training in action with a visit to the Sacks' house in Waldorf.

When Erin Geoghan saw Heidi again, "I wasn't even sad, I didn't even miss her. I was just so happy for her and knew that was the right place for her to be. It made it all worth it."

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