Katie, a blond cocker spaniel, and Timer, a black Labrador retriever, are training to become wheelchair assist dogs to 46-year-old Laurel resident Sherrill Horn. For the next year, the dogs will live with Horn and learn to help her by retrieving dropped items, grabbing things beyond her reach and helping her balance as she maneuvers in and out of a wheelchair. They'll get their exercise and fresh air running alongside Horn's motorized wheelchair during their daily outings.
"In the beginning they would accidentally step in front of my wheelchair but they quickly learned on their own to avoid that," said Horn, who has scoliosis, or curvature of the spine. "Now I take them everywhere I go."
Katie and Timer are students at Phydeaus (pronounced fi-dos) for Freedom, a dog obedience school in Laurel that trains not just household pets but caregivers capable of completing an array of domestic tasks.
The canine students generally spend three years learning how to help physically disabled or hearing-impaired individuals, providing them with assistance in moving about the house and going to the store, and giving them companionship. The school also trains canines who visit hospitals, providing a form of pet therapy for patients accustomed to human visitors only.
"They are highly trained specialists who are unique in the number of ways they can help people," said Margot Woods, proprietor and chief trainer at Phydeaus.
Woods's plan several years ago to teach dogs to become home caregivers grew out of an idea to combine community service and a hobby with her longtime pet grooming business, Applewood's Pet Center. Initially, the nonprofit Phydeaus relied on Applewood for monetary support, but since then it has become a private entity relying on annual fund-raisers and donations from individuals and corporations.
"You can't have a hobby that is bigger and more expensive than what you do for a living," said Woods.
Training a young dog to work as an assistant to a person with special needs costs Woods $10,000 to $15,000, including room and board, she said. Prospective dog owners pay a $150 processing fee to own one of Woods's trained dogs or to have their own animal trained.
Most of the dogs at Phydeaus are donated as puppies by breeders. Others are provided by individual dog owners who train with their pets and work as volunteers at the school.
Woods enrolls only dogs in excellent physical condition and chooses their specialty based on breed and temperament. Small dogs and those with hereditary respiratory problems such as pugs or English bulldogs are discouraged from applying at Phydeaus.
Some dogs are also trained to be the ears of their deaf owners. Through long, arduous training, Woods teaches them to differentiate the sounds of an infant crying, a smoke detector, a telephone ringing or the cry of someone in trouble. The dogs are taught to nudge an owner on the leg if a baby is crying, for example, or give another signal when the telephone rings. Such a dog is so highly trained that if someone in a crowd called out to its owner, the dog could lead its owner directly to the caller, Woods said.
Horn, who has used a wheelchair since the age of 11, has become more assertive and goes out more frequently since Katie and Timer arrived.
"In the eyes of others, I changed from a woman in a wheelchair to a woman with a dog who also happens to be in a wheelchair," said Horn. "I now take on challenges I would never have thought of before."