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Gone to the Dogs: Service dogs are an invaluable asset to Paralyzed Veterans of America members--both physically and emotionally.

Two years ago, James Tipton was perilously close to ending his life.

Mired in depression after his spinal-cord injury (SCI) from a 2008 car crash while on vacation in South Dakota, the 53-year-old Air Force veteran doesn't think he'd still be alive without his 4-plus-year-old Great Pyrenees service dog, Scooter. The Panama City, Fla., resident didn't want to live. Then, his best friend in the world noticed something was wrong and pawed at him.

"She saved my life, literally. I struggled being in the wheelchair for quite some time and last year, I had some pretty bad thoughts in my mind and almost wheeled myself into my pool," Tipton says. "She's PTSD--(post-traumatic stress disorder) and anxiety-trained, and she jumped up on my chair and started doing what she's trained to do, pounding me in the chest and snapped me out of it. At that time, I cut my seatbelts off my wheelchair and realized how, sorry, how precious life really is."

Better Quality Of Life

Tipton's story is just one example that shows how service dogs are an asset in helping provide veterans with spinal-cord injury or disease (SCI/D) with a better quality of life. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a service dog is defined as a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. The tasks performed by the dog must be directly related to the veteran's disability.

The ADA does require service dogs to be harnessed, leashed or tethered unless those devices interfere with the service dog's work or the individual's disability prevents using those devices. However, vests aren't required, though many owners choose to have their dogs wear them. Service animals can be any breed of dog, though states have different regulations for them.

Without Scooter, Tipton wouldn't have made his first trip to the 2018 National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG) in Orlando, Fla. The weeklong event is much more than a sporting event for veterans with serious injuries. The NVWG also provide camaraderie and support, which is something Tipton also gets from Scooter.

Tipton got Scooter in Lake City, Fla., and they bonded early. At 6 weeks old, she was so tiny she could fit in both his hands and barely hang over the edges. Since her mom had stopped producing milk, Tipton bottle-fed Scooter with goat's milk and formula early on.

It eventually became time to start training Scooter, and service dog owners have the option of doing it themselves or having it done by a professional. Tipton opted to bring a trainer to his Florida home.

Every Friday, the trainer would task Tipton and Scooter. She could either pass or fail with the tasks, and after every pass, the pair would get new tasks to work on for the next week.

"It was the most incredible experience to be that intricately involved in the training of a service dog in my home every week, rather than have to have a dog trained, go somewhere for a few weeks and then bring the dog home," Tipton says.

Tasks At Hand

It's following those commands and tasks that can help a veteran with SCI/D immensely.

Air Force veteran Steve Aoyagi's nearly 4-year-old service dog, Johnny, has saved him from the stresses of daily living. Wherever Aoyagi goes, the black Labrador/English Labrador retriever stays at his side. They're tied at the hip.

Aoyagi owes it all to the NVWG. He visited a Canine Companions for Independence booth there three years ago, ended up contacting the organization and got Johnny.

Canine Companions for Independence trains dogs to perform approximately 45 commands. Those include the usual ones such as sit, stay, heel and down, along with ones specifically for service dogs, such as opening and closing doors, turning light switches on and off, helping pull a manual wheelchair and closing drawers and cabinets.

It's those actions Aoyagi has the most trouble performing. Because of his spinal-bulbar muscular atrophy, the Des Plaines, Ill., resident deals with muscle weakness. He estimates he drops items maybe 40 to 50 times a day, but Johnny retrieves them and saves him from trying to bend or reach down to pick them up and end up injuring himself.

Johnny's also a lifesaver when Aoyagi plays sports. Aoyagi owns a manual sports wheelchair and when he's tired from pushing along, he latches onto Johnny with a special harness.

"I look in his eye, he looks in mine and there's a mutual respect for each other. He's just such a lovable dog," says Aoyagi, who also has Type 2 diabetes and is on an insulin pump. "Before him, I had [non-service] dogs, and I would actually be abusive to them. Now, I worry about people running into him or stepping on his paws, and I spend probably close to an hour a day grooming him."

Aoyagi's wife, Ann Marie, isn't always around to help him. So, it's imperative that Johnny is there for him.

"I'm told they last anywhere from 10 to 12 years if you take care of them," Aoyagi says. "So, he's going to outlive me, so that's good. It's going to be heartbreaking if he dies before I do."

Nosy Nelson

Similar to Tipton and Aoyagi, Anthony Rivera's service dog, Nelson, gives him the calming relief he'd missed for a long time.

The 62-year-old Orlando, Fla., resident and Army and Army Reserve veteran acknowledges his 5-year-old golden retriever gives him a physical and mental boost just by being around.

"He senses my depression and anxiety. So, he senses it before I'm really getting depressed, and he'll let me know. He'll tap me on the shoulder with his nose very lightly, that's like, 'OK, you need to get up and move,'" says Rivera, who sustained a T7 SCI after a 2008 motorcycle accident in Orlando. "So, I'll get up from my chair and then I'll either go outside and brush him, because he loves to be brushed and it relaxes me, or when we go outside, he'll go get his ball and bring it to me so I can throw it. I brush him probably for a good 15 to 20 minutes and by the time I'm finished, I'm fine."

Rivera got Nelson three years ago after having a discussion about service dogs with his social worker. He got a letter of recommendation from his psychologist and started working with New Horizons Service Dogs in nearby Orange City, Fla. New Horizons trains service dogs for two years before they give them to owners.

The first year, dogs are trained with puppy raisers or a family in the area in a house, and the second year, dogs live with a state penitentiary inmate, who trains a dog for the owner's specific needs. Dogs then get their owners, who go into training with them for two straight weeks.

While Rivera was at a training session, a fight broke out between two dogs in a small room and their growling and barking caused him to start having a panic attack.

Nelson noticed and instinctively got up, put his front paws on Rivera's chest and leaned on him. Rivera says he put his arms around Nelson, closed his eyes and in less than 5 minutes, he was totally relaxed.

Nelson opens regular and automatic doors, picks up items Rivera drops, brings Rivera's shoes to him and helps get underneath Rivera if he falls down. Nelson also knows how to retrieve the phone in case of an emergency.

"The only thing I really can say is I don't want to imagine what my life would be without him because he's just awesome," Rivera says. "You notice he's just watching everything that goes by. His nickname is Nosy Nelson because of that. He's very curious as to what's going on around him."

A Security Blanket

Scooter has helped Tipton physically, too. She helps him pick items up that he's dropped on the floor and knows how to open elevator doors and hit the button to open automatic doors.

Tipton loves dogs and has three of them at home, including an 8-year-old chocolate Labrador named Harley, a 6-year-old Anatolian shepherd named Bandit and a 5-year-old Chihuahua named Tiki. He had a 16-year-old golden retriever named Maggie, who passed away in January 2017. All four of them were rescue dogs.

Of the others, the trainer picked Scooter to train into Tipton's service dog--and he couldn't be any happier with how they've bonded and worked out together.

"Not only is she my best friend, but it's like I've trained her on my own to be aggressive on commands to protect me in the chair. And I have this sense of security of not only can I not get up and get out of the chair, but if I need to say a command, I know that my dog has my back at anytime," Tipton says. "I can ask her what's going on in a certain way, and then if I give that actual command, she's got my back. And knowing that and just having your best friend by your side every day, 24/7, is the best feeling in the world."

photos by Courtney Cooper

Caption: James Tipton, left, and his service dog, Scooter, a Great Pyrenees, share a kiss after a wheelchair basketball game at the 2018 National Veterans Wheelchair Games inside the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Fla.

Caption: Air Force veteran James Tipton rubs his service dog Scooter's belly while waiting to participate in field events at last August's National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Orlando, Fla.

Caption: Steve Aoyagi tells his service dog, Johnny, to pick up his wallet after 1 Aoyagi dropped it at last August's f 38th National Veterans Wheelchair Games at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Fla.

Caption: Steve Aoyagi's service dog, Johnny, paws at him to make sure he's OK at the 38th National Veterans Wheelchair Games inside the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Fla.

Caption: Anthony Rivera receives a lick from his 5-year-old golden retriever service dog. Nelson, inside the Orange County Convention Center at the 38th National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Orlando, Fla.

Caption: Orlando, Fla., resident Anthony Rivera doesn't know what he'd do without his service dog, Nelson, a 5-year-old golden retriever he got from New Horizons Service Dogs.

Caption: Anthony Rivera's service dog. Nelson, enjoys people-watching inside the Orange County Convention Center at the 38th National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Orlando, Fla.
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Author:Groth, John
Publication:PN - Paraplegia News
Geographic Code:1U5FL
Date:May 1, 2019
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