Serving as man's best friend

Nonprofit group trains dogs to help owners who have special needs

February 02, 1999|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

When Ava the golden retriever wears her head collar and body harness, she's ready for action.

Ava walks close to her owner when they go to the convenience store. She may lick her mistress' face to help waken her from a seizure. She is learning to help her owner's breathing if necessary.

Erinn E. Farver, the dog's owner, is an epileptic. Her companion is one of 10 dogs trained by Dog Ears and Paws Inc., a 2-year-old nonprofit group in Owings Mills that makes life easier for people with special needs.

"I couldn't get out of the house alone before," said Farver. "Now with Ava I can now walk down to the store. I have so much more confidence."

Farver, 27, of Westminster is unable to drive because of her epilepsy, a disorder of the nervous system causing loss of attention or consciousness and often follow-up confusion.

A student at Carroll Community College and an artist, she bought the dog, then 7 1/2 months old, last spring from a breeding center in Tennessee.

She contacted Deborah Winkler, the founder of Dog Ears, which has trained and certified 10 dogs to meet standards for "social/therapy" animals set by Assistance Dogs International Inc.

"They are not pets or guard dogs, but working dogs who also become companions," said Winkler, a veteran professional obedience trainer.

Besides typical obedience skills performed after voice or hand signals -- such as sit, stay and come -- the animals learn social skills: no aggression, nuisance barking, biting, snapping, jumping on strangers, begging or sniffing of people. Winkler said she uses no choke collars, "no forced training."

Dogs trained by Winkler's group learn to push or pull wheelchairs, turn lights on and off, and pick up wallets, pens and other items and give them to their owners. A woman with multiple sclerosis gets around on a scooter. Her poodle jumps off to do chores, then jumps on again.

A seizure-response dog such as Ava, Winkler said, has skills such as knowing when Farver is having a seizure, snuggling and nudging her or licking her to help wake her.

Winkler and a Dog Ears volunteer, Marta Corsey, have been training Ava in periodic visits to Farver's home for 10 months.

Ava "is learning to roll me over after a seizure so my airway is cleared and I don't choke," said Farver. "We are hoping that with this bond between us, she will notice and alert me to pre-seizure states."

Winkler said retrievers are known to be sensitive to events leading to a seizure, just as other animals sense earthquakes before they happen.

The other day, 16 days since her last seizure, Farver with Ava at her side ate at a restaurant with Winkler. The dog lay still under the table throughout the meal. Then they shopped at a grocery store.

To show her approval, Farver pressed a clicker, a form of communication between the two friends. She dropped a morsel of dry dog food near Ava.

"I feel more relaxed and less stressed because of her," said Farver.

Owners typically contact Dog Ears for help training an animal for a specific disability and pay what they can afford. Fifteen owners are waiting for training. The nonprofit group, which operates with eight to 10 volunteers and no paid staff, hopes to raise $70,000 in the next year.

Information, Deborah Winkler, 410-655-2858.

Pub Date: 2/02/99

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