Sandy Ball and her assistance dog, Quincy, have been nearly inseparable for five years and have formed what she calls a “real partnership.”
“He goes to work with me, and I have to travel a lot, so he goes to conferences with me,” said Ball of Beltsville, who uses a walker to get around. “He’s with me all the time.”
Since Quincy came into her life, making it easier for her to walk, stand up, take off her shoes and open doors, Ball also has gained a community in Fidos for Freedom, the Laurel organization that trained and partnered her with Quincy.
Fidos for Freedom, which has been operating in the Laurel area for more than 25 years and has been at its 1200 Old Sandy Spring Road location since 2001, trains assistance dogs and their human partners to work together. From 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, the organization is holding an open house to educate people with disabilities and the public about how assistance dogs can improve the lives of their human partners.
The open house is one of dozens of events in more than 20 countries this week as part of International Assistance Dog Week.
“We wanted to do something to honor and also raise awareness of these dogs in the community,” said Marcie Davis, a Santa Fe, N.M., resident and paraplegic who has lived with assistance dogs for 20 years, and started International Assistance Dog Week worldwide last year.
Davis said that over the years she has seen an increased awareness of the rights of people with assistance dogs and the work those dogs do, and she hopes events held during International Assistance Dog Week continue to educate the public.
Ball now volunteers as program director for the organization, a position she has held since 2009, and helps train dogs that one day will be matched with other people who have mobility issues or other disabilities. When she first found the organization online in 2005, she said she started crying because of the good the dogs were doing for the organization’s clients.
“It’s not just the things they do to make you more independent,” Ball said. “When people see a wheelchair, or a cane or crutches, they’re not necessarily inclined to come up and talk to you, because they don’t know what to say or they’re unfamiliar with disabilities. But people want to talk about your dog, or even to your dog. The dog becomes an ambassador to other people.”
The 250 volunteer trainers and puppy raisers also train dogs — all donated by breeders or shelters from as close as Laurel or as far away as California — to be therapy dogs, who can go into places like hospitals or schools and provide emotional therapy to patients or students with special needs.
Puppies donated to the organization go to puppy raisers, who teach the dogs basic skills like housebreaking and basic obedience. Dogs then go to a minimum security prison in Cumberland, where they live with inmates and learn more advanced skills like retrieving and opening doors. When the dogs are 18 months old, they move into the homes of Fidos for Freedom trainers and are taken out into as many different kinds of environments as possible, to acclimate them to being in public. At about 2 years old, the dogs are matched with a person whose disabilities, needs and lifestyle complement their skills and size. If someone needs a dog that can help him get out of a wheelchair, the dog has to be sturdy and taller than knee-high, Bowman said.
Although it takes three years to train a dog, their human partners go through more than seven months of training and study, to learn how to care for the dog and reinforce the dogs’ training, Bowman said.
Training the humans, Bowman added, often can be more difficult than training the dogs.
“Some know a lot, some know a little, and some don’t know what they don’t know,” Bowman said. “It’s not formulaic. It’s a very customizable process. Each person has their own issues, and each dog has its own personality.”
The dogs cost about $400, though the training that goes into an assistance dog can be worth up to $50,000, Davis said. Fidos for Freedom’s dogs only go to people who live within 75 miles of Laurel, so they can receive continued support and training from the organization.
“They didn’t raise their paw and volunteer for this,” Bowman said. “We picked them as puppies and we owe it to them to make sure they have the best life they can.”