By Elizabeth Sias
The Labrador-Golden Retriever mix paws at the ground to tilt a credit card upward, grabs it in her mouth, then lifts her front legs lightly onto a young man’s lap and gives it to him.
“Good girl!” he exclaims as the dog happily licks his cheek.
For 23-year-old Bryan Klaes, the everyday task of picking up a dropped item is not a simple one.
And without his dog Delka, it would be impossible.
Born with cerebral palsy, Bryan has limited control of his muscles and uses a motorized wheelchair for mobility. Because it affects all four of his extremities, he’s considered a spastic quad, meaning his muscles are too tight.
Delka, or Elle for short, helps Bryan with tasks most people take for granted — turning on lights, opening doors and picking up a dropped credit card or cell phone, for instance.
Having a dog by his side is also an ice-breaker, Bryan said.
“She’s my friend and it breaks the ice a little when people normally don’t talk to me,” he said. “People can go up to me and start a conversation and ask to pet her.”
Elle is a service dog Bryan received free of charge in May from nonprofit organization Canine Companions for Independence, which enhances the lives of people with disabilities by providing highly trained assistance dogs and ongoing support to ensure quality partnerships.
Bryan and Elle graduated together after completing an intense two-week team training course in Ohio at one of the Canine Companions’ five regional centers. During the training, students are strategically matched with service dogs and learn how to work with them effectively.
The dogs are trained for two years, learning 40 commands before they are ready to become someone’s 24/7 partner. Thanks to volunteers and supporters, the dogs, their training and ongoing follow-up support are provided free of charge.
Bryan, a Cambridge-Isanti High School graduate who lives in Dalbo with his mother Barb, returned to Canine Companions for a successor service dog when his former dog Karen retired after 10 years of service. He received Karen six weeks before his dad died in 2000.
“That was a really tough time for the whole family, but it certainly made it a little bit easier,” Barb said. “She kind of became everybody’s grief dog.”
She had hip surgery, but it became difficult for her to walk on certain surfaces, so they made the decision to retire her at age 12. She passed away in November.
Normally it takes two years to receive a dog from the time the application is submitted, but people applying for a successor dog are bumped up the list.
The North Central Region center, which covers 14 states and part of Canada, graduates 40 to 50 dogs per year. With about that many applicants per month, there’s an extensive application process in order to receive one of Canine Companions’ dogs, explained Gwen Dudek, program manager for the North Central Region training center.
The process includes an initial application with professional reference forms, applicants write an essay about themselves, then there’s a phone interview, an in-person interview in Ohio and a selection process with all of the instructors. They look at who has the highest need, and who they can serve in a reasonable amount of time.
Established in 1975, Canine Companions has graduated 3,743 teams to date and currently has 1,702 active teams nationwide, Dudek said.
The organization has its own breeding program, one of the cornerstones that sets them apart. They use Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers and crosses of those two breeds. The dogs are born into a volunteer home and raised there for seven weeks before heading to a regional office. They’re then raised by volunteers for their first year-and-a-half, during which the dogs take obedience classes. Finally, a regional office takes over for advanced training, and as the dogs get older, trainers take them to malls and other public areas.
Less than half the dogs born into the program go on to graduate, Dudek said. Each dog’s health and temperament are evaluated throughout its early life to determine if the dog is an ideal candidate.
During the two-week team training, Bryan had class eight hours Monday through Saturday. The first half is a structured classroom, with lectures and discussion before practicing with the dogs. Dudek said the students are taught as if they’ve never had a dog before, with emphasis on basic control, health care and maintaining the dog’s weight. The students also become familiar with the Americans with Disabilities Act and how that applies to service dogs.
“There’s a lot of people who don’t understand service dogs,” Bryan said. Occasionally people tell him the dog isn’t allowed to come inside with him, when in reality service dogs are covered under federal law to have access almost everywhere.
One exception, Barb said, is an operating room. Bryan once took his former dog Karen as far as pre-op in a hospital, and she rejoined him in recovery following surgery.
For the second week of team training, the teams go on field trips to public places like the mall, a restaurant and the zoo and there’s a section at the end when students demonstrate they can be safe and effective dog handlers.
“It’s so they can have that confidence when they go home to know they can manage the dog and work the dog in a distracting environment,” Dudek said.
They get set up with different scenarios, such as a child approaching with cheese all over his fingers to see if they’ll let the dog lick his fingers.
“They want to make sure that you’re able to control the dog in a public setting,” Barb said. “The whole goal is to keep the public safe and to keep you safe.”
If a dog growls once, he or she is taken out of the program, and if they miss one command in their final test, they don’t graduate.
“It’s a phenomenal program,” Barb said.
Barb joined Bryan the first time he went through team training for Karen. When he was matched with Elle, he and his Personal Care Assistant (PCA) Robyn Utt went together.
Their plan was not to send any pictures to his mom so she’d have to wait to see the dog when they got home, but she begged and Robyn snuck her a picture.
“It was fun,” she said. “Bryan and I are the same age, so we kind of made it a road trip and drove all the way out there.”
Back in Minnesota, Bryan and Robyn enjoy many activities together and are almost never home.
“During the day, we might leave at 11 and not be back until 6 or 7,” she said. “We spend a lot of time out, so Elle stays pretty busy.”
Bryan enjoys swimming, bowling and going to Twins and Vikings games. At home, he runs his own business called Bryan’s Snack Shack — which can be found on Facebook — where he sells homemade jams and salsa.
Elle, like all service dogs trained by Canine Companions for Independence, knows 40 commands. These include “get” to retrieve a dropped leash or item, “hold” to continue holding onto an item, “give” to drop that item into the person’s hand or lap, and “push” for pressing the handicap button to open doors.
“Picking up a dropped item is the most invaluable,” Dudek said.
The dogs can also open drawers or doors with a rope, turn lights off and on, and if the owner uses a manual wheelchair, the dogs can pull them in the chair.
“Navigating through a public space using a wheelchair can be hard enough, and with a dog at your side you’re 12 inches wider, so there are commands to get the dog in front or behind the person,” Dudek said.
Bryan also explained that he’ll have Elle sit under a table at a restaurant, or beneath a bench in a mall.
“Our best compliment as an organization is when they’re out at a mall and leave, and people say ‘oh my goodness, I didn’t even see a dog here,’” Dudek said. “When a dog can be invisible, that’s awesome.”
Before they invite someone to a class, the instructors are already determining which dogs are likely candidates for each person, matching based on both the dog’s and the owner’s temperament.
In the case of Bryan and Elle, Dudek said, “we pretty much knew that was the dog he was going home with.”
“The day we hand the leashes over to the students is probably the most exciting, rewarding part of the job for me personally,” she said. “The moment we hand over the leashes is really exciting, and the students are usually just so thrilled. I remember Bryan had a big smile and got very, very excited when we matched him with Elle.”
Canine Companions retains legal ownership of the dog as a promise to the graduates that the organization will support and assist them, but the owner pays for veterinary care, food, toys and other expenses to care for the dog.
Some of the follow-up support, Barb explained, is meeting with a trainer within six months of graduation and every two years after that to review the commands and ensure the team continues to work effectively together.
“These assistance dogs can change people’s lives,” Dudek said. “They teach a lot of our graduates confidence and give them a feeling of independence where they’re much less intimidated if they drop something. And being responsible for something else — a living creature — and having that constant companionship certainly enhances people’s lives.”
For Bryan, having Elle as a constant companion has become the key to meeting new people.
“With the younger kids before he had a dog, they went from saying ‘what’s wrong with him?’ to ‘oh, he has a dog, let’s go talk to him!’” Barb said. “For everybody who’s had a service dog, it is absolutely a communication ice-breaker. It’s wonderful. She’s an absolute asset to Bryan’s life.”