Dogs, it is said, have been humanity’s best friends since the beginning of time. One ancient legend tells a tale that when Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden of Eden, the dog refused to leave them and willingly accompanied them into exile. In fact, the word “Fido” means “I am faithful.”
Canine and human companions, Beth Graham and her Canine Assistant, Sajak, are a team. Sajak helps Beth maintain an independent life both at home and in the workplace. (Photo by Susan Laird)
Whether one believes such stories or not, it is undeniable that Canis lupus familiaris has served humanity well as a beloved servant, protector and non-judgmental, empathetic friend. Every year, new canine talents are discovered by humans that continue to enhance lives – whether it is a dog that can detect medical conditions before they become apparent, or a pup who can console a troubled patient at a medical clinic.
Dogs are amazing.
Pocket area resident Beth Graham would agree. For the past two years, her service dog, Sajak, has enhanced the quality of life of this spunky 29 year old.
Beth was born with a debilitating bone condition called Osteogenesis Imperfecta, or OI. Also known as “brittle bone disease,” OI causes bones to easily break or fracture, and connective tissue is defective or unable to be produced in some cases. There are eight varieties of OI. These are graded as Level I, which is the least severe, to Level VIII, which is most severe. Persons with Level IV OI are small in stature with curved spines, barrel-shaped rib cages and have bone deformity that is mild to moderate. People born with OI are very bright and have a “can-do” attitude that is inspirational.
Beth was born with OI that is Level IV. She comes from a family of five, is the middle sibling and is the only one in the family with the condition. Her parents, while protective of her, raised her to reach for her full potential. So much so, that she moved from her native Pittsburg, Pennsylvania home to complete graduate school at Sacramento State and to land a job as a high school counselor at the Sacramento Academic and Vocational Academy (SAVA) in Elk Grove.
“I am completely independent,” she said. “I am in a wheelchair, but I am able to take care of myself. I drive a van with hand controls. I go to work like anybody else.”
It is the development of tools such as motorized wheelchairs, access-friendly vans and others that allow persons with disabilities to lead fulfilling lives. Dogs have long been a part of that equation. Beth was interested in exploring the option of having a canine assistant.
“I was substitute teaching at a school back east when a student with a severe case of muscular dystrophy told me about the Canine Assistants program,” Beth said. “He had a service dog who was amazing. I had grown up with dogs, so I decided to check it out.”
Canine Assistants is a non-profit organization that trains and provides service dogs for children and adults with physical disabilities and other special needs. To date, the program has not only sponsored more than 1,000 Canine Assistants throughout the nation, but also changed the lives of those individuals and their friends and families. In addition to physically assisting those with disabilities, Canine Assistants service dogs are instrumental in removing many of the barriers faced by the disabled in today’s society.
Most Canine Assistants service dogs are born, raised, and trained at the training facility in Alpharetta, Georgia, while some are occasionally adopted from local organizations or breeders. The majority of service dogs are retrievers, including both goldens and Labradors.
The dogs are raised and screened for personality, temperament, and general health. All are trained to provide assistance to a human companion. Some are also trained as seizure response dogs for certain recipients. Following general training, seizure response dogs are trained to perform one of the following behaviors, depending on the recipient’s need: remain next to the person during the course of a seizure, summon help in a controlled environment, or retrieve a phone prior to the seizure when indicated by the recipient. Certain dogs may even develop the ability to predict and react in advance to an oncoming seizure once they are placed with their recipient.
“My mom and I flew to Georgia to check it out,” Beth said. “I had filled out all the paperwork, had my referrals from the doctor and physical therapist and was accepted as a candidate for a Canine Assistant. That’s where I met Sajak.”
Sajak, who was a year and a half old at the time, seemed a little too frisky to Beth at first.
“He was full of energy, and at first I was worried that he might accidentally hurt me,” she said. “They breed the goldens so they are about 50 pounds lighter than the typical golden. Even then, Sajak looked pretty big to me.”
However, Sajak liked Beth from the start. Sajak immediately took to performing tasks for Beth.
“Our trainer Jennifer told me that she had never seen a dog bond to a human so quickly before,” she said. “He was still a puppy. Sajak has mellowed a lot since then.”
For the past two years, Sajak has helped Beth every day. He picks up objects for her on command, turns lights on and off and – most important – can go get help should Beth ever need it.
“He knows the command ‘Go get so-and-so’ – and I’ll name that person,” Beth said. “He will search until he finds that person. At school, he will search the entire school. I am fortunate that we haven’t had an actual emergency there, but it is good to know that he will go find the people I send him to look for. If he shows up without me, those people at school or in my neighborhood know that I’m in trouble and need help.”
Sajak has also developed a talent for which he was not trained: he is able to warn Beth of impending bone breaks.
“He will just refuse to leave my side when I’m on the verge of a break,” she said. “I may not even realize that I’m going to break a bone. There is a train of thought that OI may have chemical cycles that can be a factor in bone breakage. Whatever it is, Sajak is able to detect it – and I’ve learned to listen to him.”
One hundred percent of the Canine Assistants programs budget comes directly from private donations made by corporations, foundations and individuals. Those interested in learning more about the work of Canine Assistants can visit www.canineassistants.org to learn more about these remarkable dogs and how to support the work of the non-profit organization.
Companies such as Milk-Bone have played a huge role in the success of the Canine Assistants. This year, Milk-Bone has donated all marketing efforts to help promote the Canine Assistants program. This includes a return to broadcast advertising, with an ad campaign featuring Canine Assistants recipient Jake Jeter.
The Canine Assistants organization continues to provide assistance as needed to the dogs and their recipients. Should a team be in trouble, Canine Assistants will fly out to provide help if needed.
“Last year, Sajak got very sick. It turned out that he had a form of canine irritable bowel syndrome,” Beth said.
In a turnabout of events, Beth was the caretaker of Sajak.
“I took him to the vet first thing in the morning,” she said. “Sajak was very ill and in the hospital for three days. It was good to know that I could call Canine Assistants if I needed to. Fortunately, the vet I go to is amazing. To this day, Canine Assistants will even help with vet bills if I need it. It is a fantastic organization.”
Fully recovered now, Sajak hops into Beth’s van every morning and joins her in her work at SAVA every day. The students all know him by name. After school, they travel home and go for walks in the neighborhood.
“He is so popular, I have to tell the students that they can greet Sajak only once a day,” Beth said.
Because of Sajak, Beth has been able to juggle a challenging medical condition, independent living and a full-time job in the Sacramento area for over a year now.
Not only does Beth have a valuable assistant, she has a faithful, wonderful companion.
“He is a member of the family,” she said.
E-mail Susan Laird at email@example.com.