For Nancy Burnett, Raffles is the difference between independence and invalidism. He is gentle, he is kind, but he also turns on the lights, picks up things that are dropped, brings his mistress her clothes, his leash, her shoes, keeps her from falling . . .answers her phone . . .

Lassie, eat your heart out!

Nancy Burnett was a jock. She was a backpacker, canoeist, all around sports participant and enthusiast. She was also a pianist and was planning to become a professional percussionist.

But when she had just finished her freshman year in college, at Hammond in St. Paul, Minn., where she grew up, she was stricken by rheumatoid arthritis, a particularly virulent and crippling form, unusual in one so young. She was 19.

Raffles was bred as a show dog. Purebred golden retrievers have soft wavy red-gold coats, and Raffles' was kept brushed to a soft sheen. Retrievers look like they're smiling when they open their mouths, and their dispositions are such that no one can say with authority that they're not.

Raffles' breeder gave him to a couple of dog trainers in Greensboro, N.C., to train him to be a champion show dog.

But Raffles was a disappointment in the ring. He picked up some third places and a second or two, but he wasn't to be a champion. So the trainers, Frances and T. Hall Keyes, adopted him as a family pet. He was about a year old.

By this time Nancy Burnett and her family had moved to North Carolina. She was battling her illness with humor and determination. She won her bachelor's degree in music from Wake Forest and was working on a master's (in German) at the University of North Carolina. It was clear by then that her ailment would prevent a career as a musician.

Then one evening Nancy Burnett dropped her elevator key. The entrance for the handicapped at UNC was in the basement. She couldn't bend over to pick up the key. She waited. And waited. "This is ridiculous," she remembers thinking. "I could be here forever."

"It was natural," says Burnett, "to think about dogs." When she was a child, she imagined becoming a veterinarian. She knew a little about guide dogs for the blind. So she started asking around. She was referred, inevitably, to the Keyes' Nanhall Training Center in Greensboro. She told them what she needed and they said, "Gee, you know, we've got this dog . . ."

Fran Keyes and her husband breed German shepherds, but they recognized that for Nancy Burnett they needed an animal with special qualities, a degree of gentleness and patience that too much indiscriminate breeding had made a rarity among the shepherds.

"We needed a dog that was patient, one that would work slowly with no jumping or leaning, one that was responsible and responsive. We had Raffles and we really thought he would be the perfect man for the job." Their dogs are trained by reward rather than punishment. "First," says Fran Keyes, "you must eliminate fear."

Here are some of the things Raffles does. ("It's his job," says Fran Keyes. "Every dog needs to have a job"):

* He answers the telephone. Well, he picks up the receiver when the phone rings and after she says "Fetch." ("Otherwise," Burnett says, "he might pick up the receiver if a pay phone rang while we were walking by . . .")

* He can carry up to about 30 pounds in a pack specially designed for dogs.

* He turns lights on and off.

* He picks up his own leash. If Burnett drops the handle, he returns it to her.

* He picks up Burnett's keys when she drops them.

* He picks up, in fact, almost anything she drops.

* He fetches almost anything she sends him for, although it may take a few times before she gets exactly what she is after. "He loves slippers," she says, "so he may bring a slipper first when you want a sweater. You just say, 'good dog,' and then send him off for the sweater. Sooner or later he'll get it, but still it's a lot faster than me having to get up and get it . . ."

* He stands still and stiff when she is on a curb or a step, acting as a sort of handrail.

* When, as she is prone to do, she drops money out of her purse, he picks up the paper money. "A useful and so far unexploited talent," suggests Burnett.

He is also affectionate, friendly and "lazy," grins Burnett. "And spoiled. He loves going to work because there are 200 people who spoil him rotten."

Burnett is a computer programmer at an armed services automated data system agency at the Naval Ordinance Station at Indian Head, Md.

She is 27 now and she has had Raffles, who is 6, for three years.

This Monday, Burnett, clad in a pair of running shorts and a T-shirt that proclaims "Entropy Isn't What It Used To Be," is lying in a hospital bed at the George Washington University Medical Center. She is slight and frail-looking, but she is enthusiastic and animated. She talks about Raffles with some yearning, because she has just had both her knee joints replaced. And although as a general rule where she is, so is Raffles, hospital corridors are out-of-bounds. She and Raffles have had little time together in the past two weeks.

In about an hour she will meet her dog in the lobby, a practice aided by her rheumatologist, Dr. Patience White, who is currently also her dog sitter. "This dog," says White, "gets really depressed if he doesn't see Nancy."

Although "hearing-ear" dogs have joined the seeing-eye dogs as legally recognized (and almost universally permitted) aids to the handicapped, there are so few dogs like the general-purpose Raffles, that Burnett still occasionally has problems.

Her humor, part of the attitude White finds "extraordinary," helps both dog and mistress weather the inevitable, "But you're not blind."

"No," she says she replies, "I'm not blind."

But, "You wouldn't believe how many people then will say, 'Well, is the dog blind?' "

She gives a great mock sigh. "It almost makes you want to put on dark glasses and get a cane."

Lawyers at the University of North Carolina helped persuade landlords that Raffles was as necessary as any seeing-eye animal. And usually "I just brazen it out in new places," she says. She's been on trains, almost on a plane -- Raffles was approved, but the trip was canceled -- and in restaurants, shopping centers, stores . . . "The only place I've had real trouble," she announces, "was at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum." (She's still waiting for permission she requested 18 months ago.)

She would like to see laws governing guide animals amended to include animals like Raffles, "but it's hard when you're almost the only one."

The local Arthritis Foundation, always seeking ways to keep arthritis victims independent, is hoping to establish a pilot project in this area if the right trainers and the right dogs can be found.

The costs are comparable to the dogs for the blind, about $2,500, estimates Fran Keyes, although most of her work with Burnett and Raffles was done out of love for the dog and friendship and respect for Burnett. The Keyeses are always looking for appropriate dogs, but they are rare. They have trained a few dogs for wheelchair-bound people, but none to the degree that Raffles was.

Yesterday Nancy Burnett was transferred to the clinical center at the National Institutes of Health where she will participate in a new arthritis research program (but will have a computer terminal at her bedside so she will be able to work as well).

White will bring Raffles periodically to meet Burnett in the lobby. She too says, "I just say it's a guide dog and walk right through. By the time I get to the lobby I've got all sorts of security people trailing along . . . but if he gets too down, he doesn't eat . . ."

Monday afternoon Raffles greeted his mistress in her (temporary) wheelchair in the GW hospital lobby. He showed off for a couple of photographers for a few minutes and then he lay down next to the chair, flat against the floor, his eyes half closed, his tail thumping gently . . . a dog at peace.