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Role of service dogs evolves with time

Service dog Emma opens the freezer door for Theresa Waldspurger in their Cary home. Waldspurger, who suffers with muscular dystrophy, has had service dogs her entire life.
Service dog Emma opens the freezer door for Theresa Waldspurger in their Cary home. Waldspurger, who suffers with muscular dystrophy, has had service dogs her entire life.

Emma can open doors, turn on lights and grab items out of the refrigerator.

Most people perform these duties without issue, but for those who struggle with what some consider small tasks because of circumstances outside their control, Emma fills a void.

Theresa Waldspurger and Emma – the third service dog for the Cary resident with muscular dystrophy – have been inseparable for more than four years.

“Emma gives me a lot of independence,” said Waldspurger, who uses a wheelchair and requires constant care because of the genetic disease. “These dogs have been like my children. I love each one of them.”

The yellow Labrador-golden retriever mix also alerts her mother, Pearl Waldspurger, about any emergencies her 42-year-old daughter may encounter while she sleeps at night with the help of a ventilator.

“I would never rest if it wasn’t for these dogs,” Pearl Waldspurger said. “I can’t tell you how many times Emma comes in at night when [the ventilator alarm] is hard to hear and I am sleeping soundly. It’s truly lifesaving.”

Service dogs, previously used for a small sector of people, are growing in popularity as specialists train them to assist with a variety of issues, experts say. From the autistic to soldiers returning home with post-traumatic stress disorder, the service dogs are not only companions but also connectors to the outside world.

“People are starting to realize dogs can be used for so many different things,” said Karen Shirk, executive director at 4 Paws For Ability, a nonprofit organization that places service dogs with disabled children. “We don’t turn people down if we haven’t heard of the disability or haven’t dealt with that type of issue before. We look and see how it affects the person and if a dog can be trained to help.”

The Xenia, Ohio-based business places more than 100 dogs a year worldwide, including in McHenry County, and applications are on the rise.

The Fresso family of Lake in the Hills previously worked with 4 Paws For Ability to find a service dog for their 4-year-old son, Mason, who is autistic.

Due to a long waiting list, the family instead chose Pawsitive Service Dog Solutions, based out of northern California. The family expects to receive a dog in December.

“The dog is going through advanced training now,” said Joe Fresso, the boy’s father. “The dog already came here and trained with us for a week. Now he is going through advanced training where we sent in some of Mason’s clothes so he could learn his smell.”

Theresa Waldspurger received her three service dogs from Paws With A Cause based out of Wayland, Mich. The group receives more than 2,000 dog requests annually.

“[Emma] opens the sliding door on the deck, opens the refrigerator, opens the garage door, turns on light switches and picks things up,” said Pearl Waldspurger, who also has a caretaker with her daughter from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. seven days a week. “She is just marvelous.”

The dog also serves as an icebreaker in public, she said, but people shouldn’t be offended if the family asks those around to not play with the dog out of courtesy for the tasks she has to perform.

“She’s a conversation starter,” Pearl Waldspurger said. “But it keeps her from doing what she has to do. It makes it very difficult. We feel bad when we have to say something to people, but it’s something we have to do.”

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires businesses, government and many nonprofit organizations to allow service animals wherever the public has access.

Hinsdale-based MidAmerica Service Dogs’ Foundation previously received two dogs from Woodstock to train and use as service dogs.

Three specialists with years of professional training experience work with the animals, while some of the canines take part in a service-dog training program at a prison for women in Lincoln.

Clients fill out an application, and if it looks like a good match, they meet with the dog several times to make sure they are the right fit.

Once ownership of the dog is turned over to the client, the duo meet with trainers once a week for the first six months, and then once a month for the next six months until they are accustomed to each other.

“We have to make sure they want a service dog and not a companion,” said Jan Koranda, founder of the nonprofit organization. “These are working dogs, and they are not just for lying around the house. They have to want to have the dog do things.”

Each dog knows at least 84 commands, and once they are paired with a client, can learn specific tasks geared toward each individual.

MidAmerica doesn’t charge for the dogs, but other organizations require the families raise in excess of $12,000 to pay for the majority of the animals, have them pay for the dogs outright or charge fees not covered by individual donations.

At Wilmington-based Pawsdog Illinois, staff members focus on training dogs for therapy, search and rescue, companionship, physical assistance and autism.

Clients for some of the dogs have to make at least a $2,500 donation, but the goal is to eventually offer the animals and training for free, Executive Director Leslie Spreitzer said.

The nonprofit also removes dogs from shelters where they could be put down and puts them to work, she said. Additionally, trainers focus on service dogs for low-level autistic children who tend to wander.

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