Elizabeth Twohy, who had polio as a child, uses a wheelchair most of the day, and the list of little things that are hard to do in a wheelchair is just about endless. But she has a friend, Ike, who helps out.
He picks up things she drops, turns light switches on and off, puts clothes in the dryer and takes the dishes out of the dishwasher, sorts the recyclables and brings her the telephone.
The only thing that Ike can't do that would be really nice would be to drive the car, said Twohy, director of disability services for Brookdale Community College in Lincroft, N.J. Ike does have a license, but it is a dog license.
For close to 70 years, blind people have been assisted by guide dogs.
Now, people with physical disabilities are getting the same kind of help from service dogs specially trained to make up for limitations in mobility, coordination or strength.
Julie Carroll, a lawyer for the Paralyzed Veterans of America, said demand for service dogs has grown since the Americans With Disabilities Act, passed in 1990, helped bring more people with disabilities into the work force and out into their communities.
"A lot of what service dogs do are just energy-saving things," said David Manzo, the director of development for Canine Partners for Life, a nonprofit organization in Cochranville, Pa., that trains and places 15 to 20 dogs a year. They help disabled people get more hours out of the day.
Training a service dog takes two years and about $15,000, an amount handled entirely by private financing. Carroll said she was not aware of any insurance company that covered their costs.
However, a 1996 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association described service dogs as an economically sound and efficacious option that improved quality of life and allowed disabled people to work more and rely less on paid household assistance.
Labradors and retrievers or mixes of the two are the favored breeds for service dogs, said Rob Manaseri, the director of development for Canine Companions for Independence, a national network of five centers that placed more than 170 dogs last year.
The first year of training is spent letting the puppy be a puppy, although the volunteers who raise them are asked to get them accustomed to as many different settings as possible. In the second year, Manzo said, they move into the kennels, where the first six months are spent on basic commands.
In addition to guide dogs or service dogs, Manaseri's group trains hearing dogs, which alert deaf people to important sounds like ringing phones and crying children.
No progress with monkeys
Some experiments have been conducted using service monkeys with people whose disabilities are too severe to allow them to work with dogs, Manzo said. But the idea has not gone far, he added.
The dogs are usually retired after about eight years on the job. There's an overlap period with their replacements, during which generally the old dogs teach the young ones new tricks, Manzo said. Dogs that are retired are kept by their original recipients or go back to the families that raised them.
Discussing differences in training, Manzo said that guide dogs were taught to disobey commands that appeared to be leading a blind person into danger while service dogs spent the last six months of their training learning how to respond to the special needs of their recipients.
For example, Manzo said, one of his groups' disabled clients has an artificial leg.
'Go find my leg'
"It's as easy to misplace the leg as it is to forget where you put your shoes last night," Manzo said. So his dog had to learn the command, "Go find my leg."
Twohy said that, Ike, a yellow Labrador, had learned to position himself in just the right place and to brace himself to support her when she stood up. He also wipes his own paws when he comes in, she said.
She tries to come up with new tasks for him to master, in part because she can feel his pride in his accomplishments, a pride she shares. "It's not a pet-type relationship at all -- we're a team," she said.
"I don't think of myself as the master, I think of myself as the alpha dog," Twohy said. "I spend a lot of my time making sure he's safe and well cared for."
Laura Ann Dubecky, the canine coordinator and an instructor at the Canine Companions for Independence center in Farmingdale, N.Y., said that team concept was the most important point to get across to recipients during training.
Its own personality
"They're not robots, they're dogs," Dubecky said. "And they each have their own personality. A lot of what makes for success is learning about the individual nature of the dog."
She says she has seen a tremendous benefit in the attention that disabled people receive when they go out in public with their dogs.
"A lot of times people see somebody in a wheelchair and shy away," she said. But when you add a dog to that picture, people will come right up and talk to them. It can be a help to their self-esteem.
For Twohy, however, the main benefit is something much simpler: "He's allowed me to keep working," she said.