A small, friendly brown-and-white mutt trots alongside a woman in a motorized wheelchair as she rolls timidly into the clothing store.
Right next to the pair is their coach in the difficult art of negotiating clothing racks and other obstacles found in a busy mall.
"Charlotte, go around this way and keep the dog on the left. Make sure it doesn't brush up against any of the clothes. And then sit by the cash register. Praise her a lot, Charlotte -- 'good Sabrina, good Sabrina.' "
That's Debbie Winkler, animal trainer for Dog Ears Ltd, instructing Charlotte Zinser, who suffers from a neurological disorder, in working with a wheelchair support dog.
Dog Ears -- a non-profit group that trains dogs to assist people who are confined to wheelchairs or are hearing impaired -- conducts practice sessions like these periodically at the Westview Mall.
Another of the dogs taking part in the day's exercise is Bonnie, a black poodle, accompanied by its owner, Judi Lincicome, and her three severely handicapped adopted children. Bonnie is being trained both as a wheelchair support dog to help Sarah, 5, and Danny, 4, and as a therapy dog for all three children. Eventually, Bonnie will lead Jeremy, who is 3 and blind, back and forth between their Catonsville home and the school bus.
"Kids and dogs are a winning combination," says Lee Rudolph, who co-founded the group with Ms. Winkler five years ago and now serves as both chairman of the organization's board and a trainer.
The non-profit group paid most of the cost of buying Bonnie. Most of the dogs come from animal pounds or are donated by breeders, but the Lincicome children needed a breed that doesn't shed. Dog training used to be provided free by Dog Ears volunteers; the group recently has begun to charge clients a one-time $100 fee.
Dog Ears -- a name meant to be whimsical as well as descriptive -- grew out of a brainstorming session back in 1986, when Mr. Rudolph, a corporate recruiter for the cement industry, took an ailing stray to the kennel Ms. Winkler managed.
The two talked about the countless dogs that are abandoned and destroyed. Why not find a way to save at least a few, they thought and, at the same time, help handicapped people? Since 1987, they've trained and placed six or seven dogs with clients, and have another six in training now.
To date Dog Ears has been largely a part-time effort carried on by a small group of volunteers, using Mr. Rudolph's Pikesville office as headquarters. With the organization now established as nonprofit, plans call for fund-raising to allow it to operate full-time with a small salaried staff.
"We have an awful lot of deaf people in Maryland plus a whole lot of disabled," says Ms. Winkler, explaining the need. "If we did this for the rest of our lives, we would still not service everyone in the state."
At the mall on a recent Saturday, the procession of wheelchairs and animals attracts onlookers. Some shoppers stop to pet the dogs and to exchange a few words with the owners. Although far from fully trained, the dogs clearly already are enhancing their masters' lives.
"People shy away from the disabled, try not to look at them, so they feel ostracized," says Ms. Winkler. "Dogs break the ice, enabling the disabled to have more social contact."
The chief aim of this day's outing is the socialization of the animals, getting them used to the sights, sounds and smells of a busy crossroad.
"We're teaching the dogs they mustn't do anything but be
attentive to the owner," says Mr. Rudolph. "This is an ideal place to train. Store owners have given us permission, and we take them into stores, where there's food and other distractions."
To which Ms. Winkler adds, "Exposure is the key. We expose them to crowds, other dogs, cats, trash, elevators, everything they'll encounter out there. Once a dog has been saturated to the world, it's more likely to do its job well. If, for example, the doorbell rings and the dog sees a cat out the back window, it's more likely to alert the owner that someone's at the door instead of just standing at the window watching the cat."
A few minutes later Ms. Zinser and her pooch enter a fast food restaurant for a cool drink, while many of the other diners are having hamburgers and fried chicken. Sabrina sits patiently at -- her master's side.
"Ultimately the dog will have to sit like this while the owner has a meal," explains Ms. Winkler. "For now, Charlotte is starting with a Coke" -- later they'll add foods more tempting to a dog's nose.
Training takes a minimum of four to six months, and up to two years in a case like Bonnie's, where the dog will be working with three children, each having different needs. Dog Ears people prefer starting with puppies as young as 12 to 14 weeks because they are more receptive to instruction. Aversive techniques are strenuously avoided.