Angel Dogs with a Mission
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Excerpt from Angel Dogs with a Mission
Kerrill and Abdul
(Kerrill's story follows Bonita's on this page.)
Excerpts from Angel Dogs with a Mission: Divine Messengers in Service to All Life by Allen and Linda Anderson, published by New World Library, October 2008, All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.
Excerpted from “The Dogs Who Taught Me How Amazing Dogs Can Be” by Bonita M. Bergin, PhD, Santa Rosa, California
Abdul, the First Service Dog
After returning with my husband Jim from teaching in Australia and Turkey in 1974, I started working toward a master’s degree in special education. I had lingering impressions of animals, such as burros and donkeys, assisting people with disabilities in countries where I had traveled. As part of my special education studies, I joined a master’s program in which students discussed ways to help people with disabilities become more self-sufficient. Burros and donkeys wouldn’t be feasible as helpers in the Western world, but it occurred to me that dogs might be able to assist. In those days no one realized dogs could become indispensable companions for people with disabilities.
I went to an organization that trained dogs to lead blind people around obstacles and alert them to street curbs and traffic. I presented my idea that people with disabilities, even those in wheelchairs, should have dogs who could assist them. The people who manage dog guides for the blind said that what I wanted to do couldn’t be done.
When I approached regular dog trainers about the concept of dogs assisting people with disabilities, they also said it couldn’t be done. Dog training in the early seventies mainly consisted of choke-chain jerks and fear techniques. All the aversive methods were about training a dog’s body, not his mind. Everyone assumed that because people with disabilities had no strength to hold on to a leash, give a choke-chain jerk, or bring a misbehaving dog back into line, dogs would be too unruly for them to handle.
I finally decided that if I couldn’t find anyone else to implement my idea, I would do it myself. I started calling around to organizations and asking if someone with a disability might be interested in having a dog assist him or her. One call I made was to a program called Community Resources for Independence (CRI). When I described my idea to the woman who answered the phone, she said, “I’ll do it.”
The young woman I talked to that day was Kerrill (Kerry) Knaus, a nineteen-year-old quadriplegic who was severely disabled with muscular dystrophy. If Kerry’s head fell forward onto her chest, she didn’t have the muscles in her neck or arm to lift or push it back up, and needed someone to do this for her. She was only able to hold the equivalent of an ounce in each hand and could move very little with minimal range of motion. She used a power wheelchair to get around. (Kerry tells about her experiences as the first person with physical disabilities to have a service dog in the story that follows mine in this book.)
At that time I had a very sweet, gentle female golden retriever named Jada who came into heat. One day Jim took Jada out to toilet in our backyard. I’d told him to always stay with her, but he appeared in our doorway without the dog. With a note of panic in my voice, I asked, “Where’s Jada?”
He said, “Oh, there aren’t any dogs around.”
I went running out the door to find Jada being bred by a Labrador retriever.
Jada’s accidental first litter was born around the same time Kerry and I had agreed to work together with a dog. Jim and I kept one little black puppy from Jada’s litter for us. The puppy was a mix of lovable Lab from his father, who gave the dog his black coloring, and the gentleness of a golden retriever from his mother. I thought his personality and intelligence might be a good match for Kerry.
All my life I’d had pet dogs and loved them dearly. But I knew nothing about formally training them and had not worked with people with disabilities. I naively thought that if the dog lived with and got to know Kerry well, he would learn about her disability, and everything would work out fine.
A puppy isn’t easy to manage though, and Kerry’s attendants wouldn’t accept responsibility for the dog. Since people with disabilities are dependent on attendants for their needs, it would have been risky for Kerry to go against her attendants’ wishes. Later, as the love deepened between Kerry and the dog, and she came to rely on him more, she insisted that he live with her. Her attendants adjusted to the situation and eventually came to appreciate the dog’s help. However, at first I had to keep the puppy with me to do the initial teaching. I took the dog to meet with Kerry regularly, and she worked with him too. After she adopted him, Kerry named the dog Abdul.
We started our work with my attaching Abdul’s leash to Kerry’s power wheelchair and teaching him to sit and lie down. He was a very responsive and incredibly special dog who did everything we asked him to do. Abdul had a fair degree of energy but not too much. He was gracious, kind, and willing to pay attention to Kerry, even though her voice and body — unlike her personality and determination — were very weak. When she and Abdul connected, it was just magic. Kerry was able to follow through on giving the commands I had taught Abdul, and he obeyed her.
As we progressed, I asked Kerry, “How could Abdul help in your life?”
Kerry said, “When I sit in the living room and my attendant leaves in the middle of the afternoon to go grocery shopping, sometimes it’s dark before she returns. This means I’m left in the dark alone. I’d like the dog to be able to turn the light on for me.”
So we taught Abdul how to turn on Kerry’s lights.
Then Kerry said, “One attendant leaves lunch in a sack in the refrigerator. The next attendant gives me the lunch. But sometimes that attendant comes late, and I don’t get anything to eat. So I would like the dog to tug open the refrigerator door, retrieve the sack lunch, and put the bag on my wheelchair shelf. Then I can very carefully and slowly open the bag and get out the sandwich.”
So we taught Abdul how to retrieve Kerry’s lunch from the refrigerator and bring it to her wheelchair tray table.
Kerry said, “I drop things all the time. I want the dog to pick them up and bring them back to me.” She also explained that if there were a fire or she wanted to get some fresh air, she would have no way to open the door.
We taught Abdul to pick up items Kerry dropped and to tug open the door to her double-wide mobile home.
Abdul wanted nothing more than to please Kerry, and at the same time he had such a joyful personality. He listened and cared. With her very soft voice and physical weakness, she had no way of correcting him, but he still tried to figure out what she needed and provide it. Kerry and Abdul loved each other through a fifteen-year relationship. Although she has had service dogs since Abdul, she treasures the role he played in transforming her life.
Abdul’s determination and ability made it possible for my dream of teaching dogs to assist people with disabilities become a reality. Without Abdul, service dogs for people with disabilities could not have evolved in the way and at the time that it did.
Excerpt from Angel Dogs with a Mission
Excerpted from “Abdul, the History-Making Service Dog” by Kerrill Knaus-Hardy, Scotts Mills, Oregon. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.
It took about a year before Abdul could work for me in ways that were useful. I raised him from just a tiny guy, and he was every bit the obnoxious, annoying puppy. He was curious and enormously energetic. He chewed up everything when I had to leave him at home to go to work or school. I didn’t know how to confine him, so every day he trashed my house. He taught me and I learned that I had nothing of value except him.
After hearing about all the damage the puppy was causing, my family didn’t think it was such a good idea for him to live with me. When they found out that he had chewed up my family’s Bible, they grew even more resentful and tried to talk me into giving Abdul back to Bonnie.
I’m pretty stubborn though. I had been living on my own, not at my family’s home, and was proving that I could handle being independent. I wasn’t about to let anyone tell me that I could or couldn’t have a dog. But at one point my mom told me that I was welcome to come home for another visit but couldn’t bring the dog. I said, “Well, I guess I won’t be seeing you then.”
After a while, my mother realized that if she ever wanted to see me again, she would have to let my dog come with me. This is how I wound up making the second visit to Oregon with Abdul a couple of years later. By then, he was very well trained, but my family had never seen him work. It was the mid-seventies, and there was no such thing as a service dog for people with physical disabilities. My family couldn’t have imagined what Abdul was like, because they had no firsthand experience with such a concept.
On this visit my family had to leave me at home while they went into town to run errands. Unexpectedly they were delayed in returning, because the errands took longer than they had anticipated. It started to get dark. With no cell phones or any way of checking on me, they became very concerned.
For my whole life, whenever people were gone too long, without anyone at home to turn on the lights, I’d have to sit in my wheelchair and watch the room dim and fade to black as the sun set. Naturally my family was worried about poor Kerry being stuck in the dark while they were in town.
When they returned home this time though, they found me sitting in the house with all the lights on, watching television. I had also eaten dinner. With great satisfaction I asked, “Why were you worried? I had Abdul turn on the lights and give me the television remote control. He opened the refrigerator and brought me some food.” With this, they were actually seeing a service dog in action, performing practical tasks. That day marked the end of any objections they’d had to Abdul. He had won them over.
While I was in Oregon, my family arranged for me to speak to a support group run by a therapist for people who were newly disabled. This was the first time my mother ever saw me give a demonstration with Abdul and speak about him. The attendees at my talk were amazed when I showed them what Abdul could do for me. He knew how to operate elevator buttons, accompany me to college classes while carrying my filled backpack, place himself precisely in different positions so I could reach compartments in my backpack, turn on my car heater, open doors, switch on lights, and give me the remote for my wheelchair lift if I dropped it.
I continued the presentation by answering questions from newly injured people. Everyone became so excited that what was supposed to be a twenty-minute talk lasted ninety minutes. People wouldn’t leave. They wanted to know more about how to get a dog like Abdul to help them. At that time there were no laws for access, and it was unheard of to have a service-dog assistant.
My family was amazed at the significance of what they witnessed. They could see these people clamoring for the same independence I was experiencing. My mom was speechless. Tears filled her eyes. Afterward, Mom said, “I had no idea. I’m so glad you went through with this and didn’t listen to us.”
My mom is as stubborn and independent as Bonnie and I. But she admitted that she had been wrong and apologized to me for the first time I could remember. Since then, she has become one of my biggest advocates. When Bonnie founded Canine Companions for Independence (CCI), my mother helped to find an attorney to incorporate it as a nonprofit organization. She served on the CCI board and talked about CCI and its programs with everybody she met in business or socially. To anyone who would listen, she raved about Abdul and what he had done for me.