By Val Fralick
Like many retirees, Craigie GinLite (aka, Reggie) was looking for something to do. Like an increasing number of people afflicted with Multiple Sclerosis, Keleigh Miller was looking for a service dog for balance support. Indeed, it sometimes “takes a village” to complete the puzzle.
Keleigh’s MS had been slowly progressing over the past 15 years. Around two years ago, a friend introduced Keleigh to professional dog trainer Betsy Howell of Red Fern Canines. Betsy is a former training coordinator for Susquehanna Service Dogs, and she agreed to begin the search for a tall, trainable dog with a gentle temperament. Of course, retired-racer adopters immediately think, Greyhound! That never crossed Keleigh’s mind. However, while most Greyhound adopters are aware of just how clever our dogs can be, we do not expect them to aim-to-please as would, say, a Labrador Retriever. Thankfully, that never crossed Betsy Howell’s mind. As the wheels-were-turning for the proper dog, Keystone president Dianne Shadle added the “oil” of possibility for a Greyhound to be a suitable choice. Four months into the Greyhound hunt, four-year-old Reggie was hand-picked in April of 2010. Betsy fostered Reggie for one month to teach him basic commands. On May 14, 2010, Reggie moved in with Keleigh on a trial basis towards his second career.
The average service dog arrives at its placement fully trained at a cost of $5000 to $15000. In this case, Keystone Greyhounds donated Reggie’s adoption, and Betsy offered discounted services for Keleigh, herself, to take on the training and certification process. Keleigh was extremely pleased, and pleasantly surprised, by how quickly Reggie learned commands and bonded to her. Along the way, dog behavior consultant Lee Livingood stepped in to help with specific lifestyle issues. One of these issues involved Keleigh patiently sitting on the back seat of the car with treats until Reggie felt secure enough to join her there and, eventually, travel in the car. Several of Keleigh’s friends with Labradors bemoan things that they can’t convince their dogs to do. Keleigh firmly believes that all training is possible with patience and repetition – although every dog may not be as talented as Reggie.
Aiming for official service dog certification, Keleigh and Reggie incorporated training into everyday life. They focused on ten-minute intervals, and would extend the training time if Reggie continued to be enthusiastic. Frankly, no one expected Reggie to excel at retrieving things. After all, Greyhounds are notorious hoarders. However, now when Reggie hears Keleigh command, “Find it,” he returns wiggling, wagging his tail, and obviously pleased with his success at retrieving the dropped keys, pens, etc. Sometimes he gets a treat but, mostly, he relishes her happy tones of praise. The word, “Brace”, alerts Reggie to position his body and legs for sturdy support when Keleigh needs help to rise from a chair or to regain her balance. Reggie also learned to lean into Keleigh when he senses balance issues as they walk. While most adopters have learned to stop on a stairway to allow the manic scramble as Greyhounds make their way, Reggie proved to have the sensitivity to match Keleigh step-for-step beside her for support. By September 15th, 2010, Reggie had proven his mettle at being the right dog for Keleigh’s needs, and the adoption was solidified.
After taking a training hiatus for the holiday season, Keleigh and Reggie started trial-tests in early 2011. On April 18, 2011, Reggie passed the service dog public access test, and was certified as an official balance dog. While wearing his “Red Fern Canines” service dog harness, Reggie can now go everywhere that Keleigh goes. Neither Keleigh nor Reggie imagined that the next steps in life would be together, but thanks to a coterie of confident matchmakers Reggie has found work that is even more significant than his former career, and Keleigh has gained balance by leaning on a friend.
(Editor’s note: WW Key Kap Rico (aka Lucky) is the second Keystone dog who will be certified as a service/support dog. He is presently in training with Rosanne Foy and will graduate in a few months. He will be adopted by an elderly woman who uses a walker and needs him for support.)