Therapeutic dog service looking for new home


May 26, 2000|By Lourdes Sullivan | Lourdes Sullivan,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Laurel is going to the dogs, or so it might seem. Fidos For Freedom, a local service providing assistance dogs for the disabled, is moving from its longtime home in Laurel Lakes Shopping Center.

Having provided Fidos with rent-free space since 1993, the shopping center is renovating that space.

Fidos was started by Margot Woods, who then had a dog training school on Main Street in Laurel. She saw a local need for assistance dogs - dogs that could help disabled and elderly people navigate their lives.

According to Nancy Gavelek, leader of the organization and one of two paid staff members, Fidos for Freedom dogs serve a varied population.

"We train dogs to help people who are physically challenged. Service dogs perform tasks for the person that are difficult or impossible," she said.

Dogs are trained to alert deaf or partially deaf owners to significant noise such as alarm clock buzzes, microwave timer dings, knocking visitors at the door and dropped objects. Other dogs help weaker owners put on shoes, take out clothing from the back of the dryer, open refrigerator doors and act as a brace for someone transferring from wheelchair to bed or car.

During the 13 years the organization has been active, its membership has grown. Many Howard County children have seen presentations by the group at area schools. Disability Awareness Program (DAP) is a one-day program run in schools that introduces pupils to the challenges that disabled people face. Fidos for Freedom and the wheelchair basketball teams are among the favorite demonstrators.

A junior volunteer group of 10 students - there's a waiting list - of ages 12 to 18 volunteers at Fidos regularly. Angela Rever, 17, of Jessup has been a volunteer for six years. She mentors newer members about how service dogs can make a difference. "We teach the other teens how to train dogs and about the different disabilities," she said. "We have classes on what it's like to be hard of hearing or deaf."

The juniors also help with the assorted paperwork any volunteer organization requires.

Angela has twice participated in DAP days at Patuxent Valley Middle School, but the press of academics (she's a junior at Long Reach) has prevented her from assisting more often.

Not that she isn't busy. She works at North Laurel Animal Hospital and she is raising Echo, a Norwegian Buhund, for Fidos as a hearing assistance dog. She's done this before, raising Mattie, a black Labrador.

While she gives Echo the rudiments of specialized training, her primary job is to provide Echo with a happy puppyhood.

Fidos volunteers nurture dogs until they are 2 years old. It's important, cautions Nancy Gavelek, that the dogs have grown into stable, mature dogs before they are trained and given jobs.

Angela is grateful for the support her mother, Charlotte Sarafino, has provided. Charlotte was a volunteer coordinator for a few years.

And Angela is looking toward the future.

"I want to go to college and open my own veterinarian business," she said. "Fidos has really opened a lot of doors for me. It's given me as much as I've given them."

Fidos also has a pet therapy program in which volunteers and their dogs visit nursing homes and hospitals. That's how program leader Gavelek became involved with the organization. It has a roster of 62 dogs and owners who visit. Likewise, the organization has a cadre of volunteers who raise the donated puppies. Most of the service dogs are large breeds donated by breeders.

Sundaze Kennels in Upper Marlboro has donated eight labs to the program over the years.

This year, the organization faces its largest financial challenge, with its need to move.

"We found a place across Sandy Spring Road. We are in the process of doing all the inspections. We still need funding," Gavelek said.

Fidos has enough in its budget for a down payment, she said, but such an expense would wipe out the money needed for operational costs.

She's grateful to Nancy O'Mearaof Laurel Lakes for the support and rent-free site for seven years. "She's been incredibly supportive over the years," Gavelek said. "She has a really big heart."

Gavelek is looking for donors and contributors. The organization can be reached by mail at P.O. Box 5508, Laurel, Md. 20726, or at

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