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Recognizing service dogs

Published August 10. 2012 05:02PM

This is International Assistance Dog Week, which recognizes the service dogs often used to aid disabled veterans or assist others with health-related concerns in facilities such as nursing homes.

The work of these highly-trained and hardworking companions cannot be overstated. Many in our area are familiar with or are participating in programs related to the service dogs.

In a program called Canine Companions for Independence, dogs are taught to perform household tasks including opening doors, turning light switches off and on, pulling a wheelchair, and picking things up. During the last phase of the animal training, the candidates for dogs are brought in to match them up with a suitable canine. The two then train as a pair and get to know each other.

Service dogs perform at a high level and their human companions never take them for granted. If a wheelchair bound person, for example, leans forward and cannot return to his upright position, a dog will jump up with his front legs onto the person's lap and remain until the person uses the dog to push himself upright.

In another case, the parents of an autistic boy could not sleep at night because the boy wandered. His dog was trained to alert the parents whenever this occurred, allowing them to rest more peacefully rather than remain awake at all hours of the night anticipating the problem.

A Texas-based group, Guardian Angels for Soldiers Pet, matches the pets of military men and women with people who will care for them during deployment or emergencies. The program began in 2005 when Linda Spurlin-Dominik and Carol Olmedo realized that military men and women about to be deployed were often left with no choice but to give up their pets to shelters or have them euthanized.

The organization has built a nationwide network of foster families, whose backgrounds are carefully checked and who meet criteria, to care for those pets until their owners return from their missions.

This week, Pennsylvania provided new protection for service dogs when Gov. Tom Corbett signed legislation which helps the animals and their owners. House Bill 165 was ceremonially signed into law at the Susquehanna Service Dogs storefront location at the Harrisburg Mall, a facility used for service dog training classes.

Sponsored by Rep. John Evans of Erie, the legislation imposes a criminal penalty upon the owner or co-owner of a dog that kills, maims or disfigures a service dog without provocation. Violators can be fined of up to $5,000 and held liable for the veterinary or replacement costs of the service dog.

"Service dogs provide a vital link between some of our most vulnerable citizens and the rest of the world," Corbett said. "By protecting these animals, we are protecting the people they serve. This bill leaves no uncertainty that a willful and malicious attack on a service dog is a crime and will be treated as such."

The governor is right. In our crazy society, it's often our four-footed friends and loyal companions who need protection from the animal-like behavior of some humans.

By Jim Zbick

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