Service dog passes exam with flying colors

06/07/2012 5:00 AM

06/09/2012 7:33 AM

Some people may not agree with the notion that there is a “right” person for everyone. But animal owners have no doubt that the maxim is true when it comes to pets. Recently, someone explained it to me this way: Every once in a while, an animal leaves a paw print on your heart.

That sums up what a black Labrador retriever named Jesse means to a Hartville, Ohio, family who found the dog so intuitive that members immediately realized she was the dog for them.

Bill and Kathy Speer knew it would be difficult to find a service dog to help Bill cope with the ravages of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. ALS is a disease of the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord that control voluntary muscle movement. Bill was diagnosed with the disease five years ago. It has robbed him of the use of his body and the ability to speak.

Lakota, the first dog they received from Assistance Dogs of Toledo, based in Swanton, Ohio, failed to understand commands from a computer that gives voice to commands from Bill Speer’s eyes.

But what confused Lakota was barely a blip on the screen for Jesse. It took her 15 minutes to catch on and accept commands from the computer, rather than directly from Bill. There is some advantage in accepting a “senior” dog into your home, the couple decided. Jesse, who is 8 years old, has been with the Speers for three years.

When Kathy Speer was diagnosed with autonomic dysfunction, a malfunction of the autonomic nervous system, Jesse became certified to help both her owners cope with day-to-day activities. Jesse is also a pal for the couple’s 9-year-old daughter, Abby.

“Our daughter has Down syndrome, and Jesse is great with her. And (Abby) has someone to boss around,” she said.

Each May for several years, Kathy Speer has taken advantage of an eye-care program offered to service animals by the American College of Veterinary Ophthalmologists (ACVO). More than 200 board-certified veterinary ophthalmologists throughout the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico offer free eye exams during the National Service Dog Eye Exam Event each year.

Since the Service Dog Eye Exam program started in 2008, more than 10,500 service animals have been examined, including handicapped assistance dogs, detection dogs, search and rescue dogs, horses and even a donkey.

Jesse, who received her exam last month from veterinary ophthalmologist Mark Bobofchak of Eye Care for Animals on Copley Road in Copley Township, Ohio, passed with flying colors.

He did a complete ocular exam on Jesse, testing for redness, squinting, cloudy corneas, retinal disease, early cataracts and other abnormalities that could lead to serious health problems and vision loss.

Jesse, who was trained for service by inmates at the Toledo Correctional Institute, opens doors, picks items up off the ground and helps with laundry.

Although Jesse didn’t quite fit in her first two placements, she immediately became an integral member of the Speer family.

“She brings me things and helps me with groceries. She’s the real deal,” Kathy Speer said.

The Speers take Jesse’s health as seriously as they do their own.

A thick notebook containing Jesse’s medical records accompanies her on all her appointments so Speer can pinpoint when and what tests the dog has undergone since coming to live with the family.

Bobofchak assured Speer that although retinal degeneration is common in Labs, Jesse appears to be free of the disease. “If she had the genetic degeneration, she would have shown signs of it by now,” she said.

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