Russell Johnston’s body doesn’t work like it used to.
He’s 63, with diabetes, multiple sclerosis and degenerative disc disease. He’s suffered two strokes, five hip surgeries and a spinal stress on his C4 vertebrae.
“With all those conditions, I have a hard time bending over and walking,” Johnston said.
But he does just fine. That’s because of Ferrari.
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Ferrari is Johnston’s service dog. That’s not to be confused with a guide dog, which helps blind people. Or an emotional support animal, which helps people who suffer from PTSD or social anxiety. Or even a facility dog, which is used in schools or nursing homes but not trained for public interaction.
A service dog performs physical tasks for people with disabilities to help them gain independence. Ferrari, a golden retriever, can pull off Johnston’s socks at night in his home in Hutchinson. He picks up his credit card when he drops it in the grocery store, or his keys if he drops them while getting into his car. He can even find his lost shoes, though Johnston said he hasn’t tried to teach him the difference between his left and right shoe yet.
If it’s a task that requires bending over, “Ferrari does everything for me,” Johnston said.
Johnston’s dog is one of more than 500 dogs that have been trained at KSDS Assistance Dogs Inc. in Washington, Kan., the state’s only training center that is accredited by Assistance Dogs International. That means, among many other requirements, that their dogs must pass strict exams that test their ability to avoid food, ignore other dogs and pass people.
The dogs are bred at KSDS and then sent to volunteer trainers at 8 weeks who make sure the dogs learn basic obedience until they’re about 18 to 24 months old. Then the dogs return for six more months of specialized training at KSDS.
Not all dogs make the cut. Gina German has trained seven KSDS-bred puppies. Of those seven, she said, only three made it. Three were sent back to live with her because of a common hip disease and one because it liked to play too much.
Finally, the new owners have to train for two weeks with their new dogs. Johnston was in the middle of a medical procedure so he had to be flown out to his training from the hospital, he said.
Joleen Pianalto, another service dog owner from Wichita, who lost significant function on half of her body after a stroke, said that at first her dog would do the opposite of what she asked.
“Those were the hardest two weeks of my life,” Pianalto said. “In two weeks, you and the dog are supposed to bond, and I cried a lot.”
But Pianalto persisted and now her dog, Aladdin – a white Labrador whom she calls Al – helps her balance in open areas, instead of having to steady herself on railings or walls.
KSDS provides dogs at no cost to their new owners. It costs about $25,000 to train a service dog, according to Letha Nelson, a trainer with KSDS, but every person who applies and is deemed eligible will be put on its waiting list.
KSDS places about 25 dogs a year, some of which are also facility dogs and guide dogs, but the waiting list is longest for service dogs. The organization is trying to increase its funding to place 50 dogs per year.
Before he had a service animal, Johnston said his diseases took a toll on his marriage and led to a divorce. Then his previous dog, which was a comfort but didn’t help around the house like a service dog, passed away. Johnston stayed inside his house a lot.
One day, he saw a KSDS information booth at a rodeo. He was wary at first because he was worried the service dogs would have all of the animal personality trained out of them. So the booth volunteers invited him to their next event, though they would only tell him the event’s title.
“They said, ‘we’re going to have a Let’s Get Naked party at the church downtown,’” Johnston said.
After making a delivery for his direct-mail business the day of the “naked” event, Johnston parked his car a half block from the church and waited. He saw pairs of dogs and owners enter the church and disappear. He approached cautiously.
Inside he found dozens of service dogs, all of which had been stripped “naked” of their service vests and were running and playing just like regular dogs. Well, mostly.
“They play, but they’re a more intellectual player,” Johnston said. “They’re not in there to find out who is the alpha leader.”
That’s when Johnston met Pianalto, who, he said, had a pretty smile and a pretty dog, and they quickly became friends. The dogs have given him the mobility to be more social and are great companions in their own right, he said.
“They make no judgments if we clean the house, if the house is dirty, if we have clothes on or no clothes, if our socks match, they don’t care,” Johnston said. “They just give you unconditional love.”
Dogs at work
Even though the service dogs wear a special vest, some people don’t understand that they are working; they might try to pet or feed them.
“I don’t want people to pet my dog when I’m walking because it will spook him, and it will spook me, and then I’m down on the ground,” Pianalto said.
And not everyone understands what service dogs are for, so they don’t understand that the law allows service dogs to enter any space, such as supermarkets, as long as the animals behave.
Last holiday season, Johnston tried to ride the train at a local mall with a friend, and the operator wouldn’t let the dog on, even after Johnston said he offered to pay $20 for any cleanup costs. So he asked an officer to talk to the worker. Johnston carries information in his dog’s vest that he shares with people who are curious about Ferrari.
Part of the problem is that the laws don’t define what constitutes a service animal, what kind of training they have to go through or what certification constitutes real service dog training. This has led to some cheating, said Nelson, the trainer at KSDS, because it’s cheap and easy to buy vests and certificates on the Internet without proof of training. This could make life more difficult for people like Johnston, she said.
“It’s going to make the public say, ‘we don’t want any dogs,’ and it’s going to hurt the people who really need these dogs,” Nelson said.
For now, though, Johnston said most people he knows love Ferrari, and the dog often brings joy to people he meets.
Ferrari performs one final task at night for Johnston.
“At night time, I’ll say, ‘Let’s snuggle,’” Johnston said. “And he’ll jump on the bed and snuggle.”