Service dogs extend partners

News editor

Eight years ago, Nanette Lowry of Marion had no interest in getting a service dog, despite a hip problem that occasionally sent her tumbling to the floor. She finally changed her mind after falling three times in a single day in front of her students. When she got Astro, a blockhead lab, and trained him, she was amazed by how much more she could do.

“The independence, self-assurance that I can do it, that we can do it,” she said.

Now Astro goes with her everywhere, and so does Tank, a 6-month-old English mastiff puppy who is training to take Astro’s job when he retires. The dogs are trained as “walker dogs,” there to provide support for Lowry and to be with her in case of an emergency.

Astro is trained to open and close doors, help Lowry get off the floor, catch her if she falls, and get help if she falls and can’t get up. And Tank is learning to do all of those things. Lowry said training is a constant.

“It’s 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” she said. “You don’t ever not train. This is a way of life. Anyone with a service animal will tell you that.

“These guys are just like an extension of me,” she said. “I don’t know who has more separation anxiety, me or the dog.”

By federal and state laws, service animals are permitted to go anywhere their owners go. Businesses can’t refuse service to someone because of a service animal, nor can they charge an extra fee or require a deposit.

Lowry said she has had occasional issues with people being unclear on the law, but there haven’t been many, although once a hotel in Texas refused to rent her a room. Four days later, the employee who had refused lost their job, she said.

She said people used to think service dogs were only for blind people, but the public is gradually learning. Lowry does her part, teaching children about service dogs when she substitute teaches.

“Kids have watched Tank grow up,” she said.

In addition to the training covering their areas of service, service dogs are also trained to be controllable, mellow, and stable, so as to not cause problems when out with their owners. Astro passed an assistance dog public access certification test in 2006.

As an example of how calm Astro is she said he has had his tail stepped on or rolled over with a wheelchair without doing anything more than getting out of the way afterward. Lowry said Tank still makes a fuss, but that’s part of why he is still in training.

Tank is already a big dog, but he will be huge by the time he is fully grown, and Lowry takes that into consideration in his training.

“I am training him right now as if he were 200 pounds,” she said.

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