When Trained Dogs Are Paired With The Disabled, Lives Are Recovered. Unleashing The Disabled From Despair

Posted: January 26, 1994

CHADDS FORD — After a disabling setback brought on by multiple sclerosis in 1985, Gridley McKim-Smith was too weak to walk for long distances or to handle any task that required muscular stamina. Then, in 1990, her husband died, and she was left alone with a wheelchair that she was often too weak to use.

Forced to cut her work hours at Bryn Mawr College, where she teaches art history, and confined to her apartment, McKim-Smith slid into a limbo of loneliness.

"It was horrendously depressing and defeating for me," she said. "I was sitting at home despairing.

"You know how in the spring when the weather is beautiful, you really want to get outside? Well, I would just sit and look out the window."

Little did McKim-Smith know of the blessing that would soon enter her life. The blessing was Greta, a white German shepherd she received two years ago

from Independence Dogs Inc. of Chadds Ford. Taught by trainers at Independence Dogs, Greta was able to aid McKim-Smith by supporting her during short walks, pulling her wheelchair, turning switches on and off and opening doors.

No longer was she suffering in isolation, said McKim-Smith, 50. "When I got Greta, it was amazing. I could go places."

McKim-Smith's story is one of many similar tales told by the clients of Independence Dogs, a nonprofit organization that began training service dogs for the disabled in 1986. The stories are heart-rending accounts of lives recovered, transformed and even literally saved.

Independence Dogs has paired 49 people with dogs. Friday, it will graduate its 50th recipient and her dog, Kobi, in a ceremony at J.D.'s Cafe in Wilmington.

"It's a big milestone for us," marketing director Benjamin J. Ruggieri said Monday.

Founded by Chadds Ford microbiologist Jean King, Independence Dogs operates on a 12-acre wooded property known by the staff as The Knoll. A residential- looking structure houses offices and a living quarters, where each recipient stays for an intensive three-week training period before taking his or her dog home. A large, heated kennel houses the canine trainees.

King, 63, started Independence Dogs after becoming disabled herself. She had contracted tuberculosis of the spine at age 39 - about the same time she lost her fiance to a heart attack - and spent most of her time cloistered behind four walls in a wheelchair. After reading a book on guide dogs for the blind, she decided to apply the service-dog principle to her own situation. So she bought an Akbash pup and started training him to pull her wheelchair, retrieve dropped items and perform other tasks she could not manage.

The dog, King said, "gave me my life back. I could go shopping again. I could get out more."

Wanting to share her good fortune with other disabled people, King started Independence Dogs, made a video and began fund-raising. The organization now has a staff of seven and a two-year waiting list for dogs.

In the kennel Monday, trainer Joseph Pizzirusso, 29, worked with Toby and Gonzo, two frisky male pups who are midway through their 18-month training program. As Pizzirusso demonstrated how Toby can pull a wheelchair, the dog stopped periodically for a play break, lurching onto his trainer's lap and demanding kisses.

"He's a good worker, but he's still kind of immature," Pizzirusso said, stroking Toby's head.

The dogs used at Independence Dogs come from breeders, local SPCAs and rescue services. They are mostly large breeds - Labradors, Rottweilers, German shepherds and sturdy mixed breeds - capable of pulling or supporting the weight of a full-grown person. Dogs and people are matched proportionately for body size, said Ruggieri, whose wife, Maureen, stricken by multiple sclerosis, has an Independence dog.

The cost of training a dog can run up to $10,000, but clients pay only $250 to $650, depending on the complexities of the harness.

Diane Smith of Malvern has had her Independence dog, Simon, for almost four years. Diagnosed with MS when she was 28, Smith, now 45, later joined a support group, where she met King, a guest speaker at one of the meetings.

Smith immediately wanted to be involved in King's operation. So she, her husband and son became a "puppy family," one of the homes used to socialize Independence dogs in the first 10 months of their lives. When Smith's symptoms worsened in early 1990, curtailing her mobility, she applied for a dog.

Friends encouraged her to get a motorized wheelchair instead, but the idea did not thrill her. "I'd say, 'Do you know what it is on a cold, lonely, miserable night to roll over and hug your wheelchair?'

"Simon is a part of me," Smith said of her 7-year-old German shepherd. ''It's a comfort and a companionship that extends much beyond a stuffed animal."

"On a bad day," she said, "I can look in his eyes, and it's sort of like him saying to me, 'That's okay, we'll get through it.' "

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