Hero Dogs: The Stories of Our Four-Legged Heroes

By Paula Neely | April 19th, 2016

Stories about how assistance and guide dogs allow for their owners to live a full life.

Hero dogs

Having an assistance dog has made it possible for Debbie Hart-Bowley, a boomer who lives in Henrico Country, to live independently. “If I didn’t have the dog, my husband would not be able to work,” she said.

Hart-Bowley suffers from a neurological muscular disorder, drops things frequently and can no longer walk. She has received two assistance dogs from Canine Companions for Independence (CCI), a national nonprofit organization that provides trained dogs at no cost to people with disabilities.

Her first dog, Elias, rescued her when the wheelchair lift on her van got stuck and left her stranded in midair. No one was around to help. To make matters worse, she dropped her phone and couldn’t get it.

Elias fetched the phone so she could call for help.

After Elias died, she received Fletch, who opens and closes doors and drawers and picks up whatever she drops – pens, books, drink bottles, even dollar bills.

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David Rogers, a medically retired U.S. Air Force veteran who lives in Midlothian, also received a dog from CCI. Rogers suffered a cci-training-team-jersey-ivtraumatic brain injury and is unable to talk and has difficulty walking. Jersey drags his laundry to the washing machine so that he can wash his clothes and motivates him to exercise. He also benefits from the responsibility of feeding and taking care of a dog.

CCI breeds dogs, usually a Labrador and golden retriever mix, to serve as assistance dogs. When puppies are 8 weeks old, they go to live with volunteer puppy raisers.

About 30 volunteers in Virginia are currently raising puppies, according to Bryna Brennan, president of the Old Dominion CCI chapter. She and her husband, Eliot Levinson, began raising puppies in Heathsville as soon as she retired four years ago.

At about 18 months, puppies are returned to CCI in New York, where professional trainers match them with applicants and train them specifically to help the recipients. The dogs give recipients “independent lives with dignity that they otherwise wouldn’t have,” Brennan said.

Some assistance dogs become facility dogs that work in courtrooms helping abused children find the confidence to testify.


Christopher O'Meally with his Guiding Eyes for the Blind trained guide dog, Eden.
Christopher O’Meally with his Guiding Eyes for the Blind trained guide dog, Eden.

Guide dogs, which are trained to guide the blind, are also provided at no cost to recipients through Guiding Eyes for the Blind, according to Julie Albany, Richmond Region coordinator.

Richmonder Christopher O’Meally said that walking with his guide dog, Eden (now retired), was much smoother, more efficient and faster than using a cane.

Guide dogs are also trained to protect. They won’t move forward or go somewhere that’s not safe, O’Meally said. For example, Eden laid down in front of him at an intersection once to prevent him from getting hit by a car that ran a red light. Another time, she sensed danger at a bus stop and pulled him away. He later found out that someone had been robbed there at gunpoint.

As with assistance dogs, guide dog puppies are raised and trained by volunteers and then returned to the organization for formal training when they are about 16 months old.

Albany has raised 18 puppies and helps train other raisers. Puppies are taught basic obedience, “impeccable manners” and socialization. She said that giving them up “never gets easier, but it helps to see the difference they make in people’s lives.”

Recipients spend three weeks at the organization’s headquarters in New York where they are matched with a dog and learn how to be a team.

Dogs are also trained to guide blind runners and people who are deaf and blind, and to support autistic children.

Hero dogs of the heart

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