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Working like a dog

Pumpkin grabs the strap in her mouth and pulls hard, a little growl escaping out the side of her lips as she yanks down and pulls back.
Most dog owners would immediately recognize this classic tug-o-war behavior. But Pumpkin is not playing. She is a highly trained assistance dog, and she's just opened the heavy front door of Dr. Kathryn Wright's apartment. Pumpkin holds the door open patiently until Wright slowly makes her way through the doorway, then on command Pumpkin drops the strap and bounds through the doorway herself, quickly assuming her position tight to the left heel of Wright. She looks up at Wright for her next instructions.

"Good girl," coos Wright to her ever-present helper, a gorgeous, two-year-old Golden Retriever/Yellow Labrador mix.
Pumpkin joined Wright in January and the two have been learning to work and live together, and in the process they have clearly fallen in love.
"Isn't she wonderful?" asks Wright, not really needing an answer.
Wright has a debilitating neurological disorder that causes her to move slowly and she is at times unstable on her feet. Pumpkin is specially trained to help Wright retain her independence in her own apartment.
"Brace!" says Wright, quietly but firmly. Pumpkin freezes all 58 pounds of her body into a canine statue. Wright, now holding a harness strap attached to Pumpkins back, reels a bit, then regains her balance by leaning on the sturdy dog. Once Wright feels secure again on her feet, the two then step slowly forward on their way to the library, down the hall from Wright's apartment at the Henry Ford Village in Dearborn.
To become an assistance dog requires years of hard work, discipline and training, not only for the assistance dog but also for the client. Pumpkin trained for almost two years at the Paws with a Cause national headquarters facility in Wayland, Michigan. Now that she is with Wright, a Paws with a Cause staff trains the two of them together two times a week for up to the next eight months, sometimes in Wright's apartment and sometimes out in public.
Clients like Wright receive their assistance dogs free of charge. Their only financial commitment is to provide regular veterinary care, food and shelter as they would for any other household pet. Paws with a Cause's annual budget of about $4.5 million comes from private donations, grants, The United Way and special events. Their Wayland facility can house up to 100 dogs in training, and they have a waiting list of over 1,000 disabled people from across the nation. Wright was on a waiting list for over two years before she got the call that Pumpkin was ready.
Wright is a retired adolescent pediatrician who founded the Horizons Project at Children's Hospital for teenagers infected and affected by HIV/AIDS. She has helped scores of young people regain their health, independence and dignity. Now she is relying on Pumpkin to help her maintain her own independent lifestyle.
Wright has finished her browsing at the library and tells Pumpkin that it's time to go back to the apartment. Pumpkin's intelligent face and keen attention would lead one to almost believe she understands every word Wright has just said.
Wright stands and steadies herself on her walker, with a little help from Pumpkin. The two start the walk back down the hall to their apartment. Wright turns to speak to another resident and accidentally drops her tote bag. She says to Pumpkin, "Take it!" Pumpkin picks up the bag and delivers directly into Wright's waiting hand, and the dog waits until Wright gently pulls it from her before she lets go, just in case Wright either didn't get a good grip or wasn't quite ready to take it from her.
Pumpkin knows it's her job to assist Wright and she takes her job seriously. Although she is naturally friendly and loves to play, especially Frisbee, when she's on the job she's all business. She walks with purpose and pride next to Wright, alert to the environment, and always listening for Wright's soft commands.
Back in their apartment, Wright settles down on the couch and Pumpkin curls up close. Soon Pumpkin is asleep, and after reading for a short time, Wright doses off as well. The two new friends rest up, in anticipation of their trainer's arrival scheduled for later that day. Then their work will resume again as they drill together, learning each other's capabilities and needs.



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