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No walls for Jericho

Program trains pit-bull-type dogs to assist people with disabilities

From Animal Sheltering magazine May/June 2015

Trained by Animal Farm Foundation, Matthew Smith’s dog Jericho is helping prove that “pit bulls” can work as assistance dogs for people with disabilities.Having Jericho along for trips to the store has improved Smith's mobility and made his dog, rather than his wheelchair, the center of attention.

On a cold Saturday afternoonin mid-January, Matthew Smith and his dog Jericho are visiting a Walmart north of Baltimore, and everyone’s just taking it in stride. That’s a sign of progress.

The 42-year-old Smith, injured in a high-speed motorcycle crash in 1994 that left him with a pelvic fracture and nerve damage, gets around with the help of a wheelchair. Jericho, a fawn-colored former shelter dog, has been trained to assist him by Animal Farm Foundation (AFF), a nonprofit in upstate New York that advocates on behalf of pit-bull-type dogs.

With one hand holding a vest wrapped around Jericho’s chest, Smith gets pulled through the megastore’s aisles, attracting nothing more than a few curious looks from fellow shoppers. The dog remains calm and focused. When Smith waits to pick up an order, Jericho lies patiently at his feet. On the way back to Smith’s Jeep, dogs barking in a car fail to distract Jericho from making a beeline through the parking lot.

The two have been together since June 2013, and Smith says Jericho—in addition to increasing his mobility and aiding with such tasks as opening doors and picking up dropped keys—has helped relieve the anxiety he felt about going out in public. “When you are in a wheelchair, you always feel like the eyes are on you,” he says. “And when you have a service dog, what it does is it allows you to at least feel like the eyes are on your dog and not so much [on] you.”

People are sometimes surprised to see a dog they perceive as a pit bull working as an assistance dog, but Smith says he’s “never had a negative response. Everybody absolutely just loves him.” One drawback is that everyone wants to pet Jericho; a message printed on his vest asks them to refrain because he’s working.

The role of assistance dog has traditionally been reserved for dogs bred for that purpose, many of them purebreds such as Labradors or golden retrievers. The AFF program enables qualified pit-bull-type dogs from shelters around the country to join the club.

Shelter dogs still face the stereotype that they are somehow “broken,” and those labeled “pit bulls” are sometimes considered less valuable than other canines in the shelter, says Caitlin Quinn, AFF’s director of operations. AFF’s mission includes eliminating barriers to adoption for shelter dogs and combating discrimination against pit-bull-type dogs, she adds, so developing a program that trains these dogs to serve people with disabilities was natural for the organization.

When AFF started its program about four years ago, “We thought that there would be more pushback” from people who might harbor negative impressions of these dogs, Quinn says. Happily, AFF assistance dog clients aren’t encountering those attitudes, which Quinn says is “a really strong statement about how far things have come for pit bull dogs.”

The Process

Shelters and rescues that think they have suitable candidates for the program may apply through the AFF website. The definition of a pit bull can vary considerably among organizations; dogs labeled as such upon intake are eligible. AFF, which has made six assistance dog matches so far and has two more planned for this summer, provides the training and the dogs at no cost to clients, and covers the cost of transporting the dogs.

Assistance dog candidates generally have to be strong and structurally sound (since they might be called upon to brace people or help them up), social and “not bothered by crowds and loud noises,” Quinn explains. “They have to be pretty easygoing dogs.”

AFF transports select candidates to its shelter in New York, where the training process starts with several weeks of playgroup sessions. If all goes well there, AFF trainer Apryl Lea brings the dogs to her home—a converted pajama factory in Kingston, N.Y.—for additional training and socialization. The dogs experience the sights and sounds of an urban environment as well as life with other canines (Lea has seven of her own, and typically has three to five dogs in training). She determines whether the candidates have what it takes to become assistance dogs and how their traits might mesh with the lifestyles of potential clients. Dogs who don’t make the grade are put up for adoption by AFF or returned to their home shelters.

“There’s a lot of very hands-on matchmaking,” Quinn says. Lea, who’s accredited by Assistance Dogs International, will visit potential clients’ homes to get an idea of their daily lives, including whether they work, how far they travel and their leisure activities.

Once AFF matches a dog to a client, Lea works with the pooch on the particular tasks he’ll be performing (which could range from opening refrigerator doors to responding to seizures), and prepares the client to handle an assistance dog. After the dog goes home with the client, Lea continues to work with them through calls, video chats and occasional visits.

Magic Moments

When Lea brought Jericho down to Maryland to meet Smith, the two of them “just absolutely clicked,” Smith recalls. “He just latched onto me.”

Today, they’re inseparable. Jericho accompanies Smith to his full-time job as an analyst for Comcast Cable and tags along on fishing trips in Smith’s bass boat. He took part when Smith and his wife, Ali, flew to Seattle and took a cruise to Alaska. (Their suite on the ship came equipped with a 4-by-4-foot litter box for Jericho.) Having Jericho along enabled Smith to participate in on-shore excursions that he otherwise would have skipped.

Smith marvels at how even-tempered and affectionate his dog is. The one-time stray, who’s around 5 years old, was found on a street in Florida, but Smith suspects Jericho—whom he describes as a “sweetheart” and “the biggest baby”—couldn’t have been on the streets for long. When he’s not working, Jericho will hop into Smith’s lap on command, chase well-chewed Frisbees and do face plants in the snow—and he’s made fast friends with the Smiths’ three cats.

“They just fit so well with each other. ... They have this really tight partnership that service dogs and clients have,” Quinn says.

The timing of Jericho’s arrival couldn’t have been better, Smith says. Years of using his wheelchair and crutches had left him with arthritis, bursitis and torn rotator cuffs, so rolling himself around had gotten difficult. Jericho literally takes the burden off Smith’s shoulders, greatly increasing his independence and self-esteem, he says.

“Jericho’s brought such joy back into my life, where there really wasn’t a lot,” Smith says. “I was working, I was hurting a lot, [in] nerve pain a lot. And he brings a smile to my face when I need it.”

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About the Author

James Hettinger is the assistant editorial director for Animal Sheltering magazine at The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). He's responsible for editing copy and managing the production of the award-winning quarterly publication aimed at shelter and rescue personnel. Prior to joining The HSUS in 2008, James worked for several local newspapers and trade associations in the Washington, D.C., area. He shares his home with three cats: Edgar, Dana and Vinny.