(Story and photos by CHAMP Volunteer Sheree Nielsen)
On a cold February evening, Nola Ewers (CHAMP Board President) and I ring the doorbell of her client Heather.
As the front door opens, the client’s mother, Cheri, greets us. Stepping inside, we notice the wide open areas of the dwelling. The family is gathered around the kitchen island finishing dinner.
Cheri’s daughter, Heather, a young lady in her twenties, navigates her motorized wheel chair into the living room. Cerebral Palsy has left her physically impaired, and she utilizes a CHAMP assistance dog named Clover to aid in the disability.
I take a seat on the sofa. The three women talk casually for awhile. I listen captivated about life with Clover.
Cheri quickly summarizes Clover’s morning ritual at the home. Spry and frisky, the three-year old black Labrador sprints from inside the front door to the entertainment center in figure-8 formation anticipating her hour-long morning walk with Cheri. Back at the homestead, Clover naps outside Heather’s bedroom door, patiently waiting for her to awake from slumber.
Young woman and dog have been together for one full year. Heather’s first service dog, Maggie, passed away in July 2009. The family was fortunate that CHAMP had the perfect successor dog in the training program ready to step in – Clover. Nola tries very hard to match each client with the right dog. She takes into account things like activity level, general personality and skills needed. Although Heather’s first dog Maggie was quite different than Clover, both were an absolute match.
From Clover’s point of view, all good things originate from Heather, her partner, who is responsible for guidance, praise, love and food. The dog responds with physical and emotional support, and a loving relationship. Clover WANTS to do these things for Heather.
The family pretends the dog is “just a piece of furniture.” For the first few months of training, no one else was allowed to make eye contact with the black lab, thus enabling Clover and Heather to form a close bond. This resulted in Clover’s full attention to Heather’s commands – the purpose of the assistance dog.
CHAMP manuals on service dogs were required reading for the family. These guides educated the family about everything from basic care of a dog to dangerous household plants. Heather studied the books cover-to-cover.
I ask the women about the training program. “New training takes place in the home, with very solid basics” states Nola. “Timeframes of the process vary greatly.” In Heather’s case, the stars aligned quickly – Clover was ready to go! CHAMP was able to skip a few training steps since Heather previously had service dog Maggie. A typical placement can take much longer.
During the process, early visits are monthly and normally with a dog therapy team. Closer to placement, a trainer will visit the household monthly, then weekly and finally two to three times weekly until CHAMP is confident the client is ready for the dog. With Clover being home-based, all visits were completed in the home.
A unique way Clover helps Heather is picking up the 911 phone – one of the few skills rewarded with treats. The phone serves as a mechanism for Heather in case of an emergency. She showed me how Clover recovers the phone from her room by saying “Get 911”. For example, if Heather has fallen somewhere in the house, Clover retrieves the phone and locates her owner.
And when Heather showers, Clover lies on the bathroom floor ensuring everything is okay.
The assistance dog can retrieve any number of items – shoes, TV remotes, or pill bottles that have fallen to the floor. Clover hears the command and her natural instincts and training kick in. As Nola explains, “It starts as command and behavior, but eventually becomes an automatic retrieve without Heather giving the order.”
Clover works for praise and love. Heather rewards her by saying, “Good girl” and the Labrador receives an occasional treat for retrieving something especially difficult.
One of Clover’s new challenges will be learning how to turn on light switches with the assistance of extenders. She has already been taught to “bump with her nose.” I asked Cheri if Clover could open the refrigerator. Her reply – “Don’t need a dog that does too much in the kitchen!”
Clover enjoys her kennel. Service dogs view them as a den to hang out and have some quiet time. The kennel is never used for correction or punishment, only a peaceful haven.
Heather’s job is to ensure Clover is well groomed. When the weather is nice, Heather brushes the dog outside – part of the training and bonding process. When Cheri grooms or feeds Clover, it is always in her daughter’s presence. This assures the dog isn’t confused as to who is her partner. Heather is also able to take Clover outside to “do her business” through a kitchen/garage door and a long leash.
I asked Heather how it felt the first time she was placed with an Assistance Dog.
“It felt great!”
According to her mom, “Clover is Heather’s motivation get out of bed in the morning.” What makes the lab so special to her daughter is that is she gets to keep Clover in the house. “It’s a big sense of accomplishment for Heather” Cheri states.
Although clients are quite protective of their service animals, CHAMP dogs are permitted to associate with other friendly vaccinated canines. In fact, Clover has a buddy in the same neighborhood. They are generally released with a command to “go play” – Clover’s cue to have fun!
According to Cheri and Heather, Clover is a funny dog. Some of her canine habits include snoring and belching religiously after eating a meal. She enjoys chasing her own tail and loves noisy balls and other toys. The ladies purchased a plush pink pig and inserted an empty plastic soda bottle inside the toy. Clover is absolutely crazy about the pig. B-a-b-y is another favorite. (The family can’t say the word in her presence, as she knows what they are talking about.)
During the interview, my cell phone rang with the sound of crickets ring tone, and Clover came bounding across the room to check out the noise. Perplexed, she stared down my purse for several minutes, tilting her head back and forth, giving us all a good laugh. Such a happy girl, Clover’s tail constantly wags.
Cheri states “Clover is almost 100 percent perfect; life with her is easy. She doesn’t tear up any of her toys.”
Heather, a “Variety Club Telethon” celebrity child for many years, lives in O’Fallon with her mother. An adjoining villa with a long interior hallway connects them to their extended family. A wonderful young lady with a zest for life, Heather takes pride in the care and well-being of Clover. She does a superb job with positive reinforcement. Heather’s mom, Cheri says that laughter and a good attitude help too!
You certainly get the feeling Heather loves Clover. And the feeling is reciprocated.