published Sunday, April 15th, 2012

Video: Four-legged friend means freedom for Ringgold teen

Jordyn Miller snuggles with Eddie in her home. Eddie already sleeps in her bed, and Jordyn says that if someone comes near her room, he will lie down on her.
Jordyn Miller snuggles with Eddie in her home. Eddie already sleeps in her bed, and Jordyn says that if someone comes near her room, he will lie down on her.
Photo by Angela Lewis.
  • Goodwill Assistance Dog Academy graduation ceremony
    Following a graduation ceremony at Unum on Friday, Eddie, a golden retriever service dog, will be paired with his new owner Jordyn. The Goodwill Assistance Dog Academy, helps to provide more independence for people like Jordyn, 13, who has muscular dystrophy.

DOG COMMANDS

Service dogs and their owners learn 90 commands. Some are common sense, like yes, no, sit, heel, good and thank you. Others are more subtle and even customized.

Free dog -- Releases dog from work; he/she is off duty and can relax.

Settle -- Dog should remain in down position and remain calm and quiet.

Light -- Instructs dog to turn light on.

Switch -- Instructs dog to turn light off.

Nose it -- Dog is to press forward with nose to close drawers or activate life alert.

Tug it -- Instructs dog to pull on an item [such as a doorknob tie] with its mouth.

Push -- Tells the dog to jump up on a door and press it closed.

Zipper -- Instructs dog to tug on a jacket zipper.

Brace -- Tells dog to stiffen its body to provide support and balance.

Pull -- Tells dog to pull wheelchair.

Fix -- Tells the dog to lift a paw to allow its leash to be untangled.

Dress -- Tells the dog to put its head through a collar or pack.

Gentle -- Tells the dog to take an item from your hand more softly.

Excuse me -- Tells dog to move over to let you by.

Closer -- Tells dog to walk closer to you.

Go in -- Tells dog to go under a table and lie down.

Leave it -- Tells dog not to touch something or to ignore something.

Back -- Tells dog to walk backward.

Right -- Tells dog wheelchair is turning 90 degrees to the right.

Left -- Tells dog wheelchair is turning 90 degrees to the left.

Better hurry -- Potty command.

Source: Goodwill Assistance Dog Academy


HELP TRAIN A SERVICE DOG

It costs approximately $25,000 per recipient to train an assistance dog. If you'd like to lend a helping paw, the Goodwill offers several ways to sponsor one of its service dogs:

$10 buys your service puppy a bone or a toy

$25 buys your service puppy one month of dog food

$50 buys your service puppy his/her working vest

$100 buys a six-month supply of Sentinel

$200 buys one week of assistance dog training and includes 24/7 housing and care.

Visit the Goodwill Assistance Dog Academy's Facebook Causes page to learn more and show your support.

Source: Goodwill Industries

For Jordyn Miller, freedom came with a cold, wet nose.

She was supposed to be walking again in just a few months, free of the electric scooter that has become her only means of getting around.

But the months have become years now for the 13-year-old with muscular dystrophy, a degenerative disease that causes muscle weakness and loss of muscle tissue. Her mind can soar, but her body cannot. Not yet, anyway.

Jordyn's legs remain weak, and her small arms don't straighten fully at the elbow, so she has a limited reach. She can't retrieve items that fall from her unsteady grasp.

But Eddie can. He can also flip on the light, open and close the door, pick up dropped items and bring the things she asks for. And deliver a big, wet smiling kiss every time he gets a chance.

This handsome 2-year-old golden retriever is a perfectly trained service dog.

And he will make Jordyn a far more independent and confident teenager than she has ever been.

He also is an example of the amazing things that service dogs are doing. Long gone are the days when Seeing Eye dogs were the only helper dogs -- serving only as guides for the blind. Now service dogs also have become the ears, hands, noses, guardians and companions of people with many different disabilities.

Today, dogs are being trained to help people with recurrent seizures or diabetes, mental disabilities including post-traumatic stress disorder and severe depression. Dogs also may be trained to carry oxygen tanks and other life-support equipment.

Those trained to help diabetic and seizure-prone people are able to smell chemical changes of the body.

Mouth swabs taken from patients at hospitals teach dogs how to respond by warning their owners in time to get insulin or to get help if it's too late.

And service dogs for highly allergic people are being trained to smell for peanuts and other food items that cause allergic reaction, said Ramona Nichols, Eddie's Chattanooga Goodwill Industries service dog trainer.

Nichols is one of a handful of dog whisperers worldwide who custom-train dogs to help people with mobility issues, like Jordyn. And the Chattanooga Goodwill is the only Goodwill in the country with an Assistance Dog Academy, according to Goodwill President and CEO Dennis Brice.

After spending the last several weeks getting acquainted and learning about each other, Jordyn and Eddie are well on their way to becoming partners, friends, teammates.

Eddie looks at her adoringly.

Soft brown eyes whisper: "What now, girlie?"

And Jordyn smiles back.

"Good boy, Eddie," she says. "Lap!"

Lap is one of 90 commands that Eddie understands instantly.

It means the girl who needs him and loves him wants him to put his front paws on her lap so she can hug and pet him.

What's a service dog?

One of only about 500 disability service dogs placed each year in the recent decade, Eddie and Jordyn are part of a growing trend.

But there aren't enough trained service dogs to go around.

So few trained assistance dogs are available that only 1 percent of Americans who need one can get one.

"The average wait time for a service dog is about seven years," Nichols said Thursday as she accompanied Jordyn and Eddie to Chili's in East Brainerd on a lunch training session.

Instead of begging or sniffing as most dogs would do near tables of food, Eddie napped beneath the table beside Jordyn's scooter. He's never had people food. To keep a service dog's job easier, it's a requirement that they never be introduced to human food.

Local training

Chattanooga's Goodwill Industries three years ago created the Goodwill Assistance Dog Academy to train and provide assistance dogs free of charge to physically disabled residents in Southeast Tennessee and Northwest Georgia.

Eddie is one of the first four dogs Chattanooga Goodwill has purchased to train.

Eddie and his foster siblings -- Brandy, Hamilton I and Hamilton II -- are all golden retrievers, the most popular breed for service training. Each has cost the Goodwill $25,000 to train.

Donors have helped pay for the effort with donations of $10 for a "bone" or "toy" or $200 donations for weekly training sessions. The Hamilton County school system's teachers and students raised $25,000 for the effort. That's where Hamilton got his name.

Any breed or mix of dog can be a service dog if it has the temperament or psychological make-up to want to please and be trainable.

"It's all about starting very early," Nichols said. "And lots of repetition and praise."

In recent years, the fastest-growing use of service dogs has been to help autistic children.

"Trainers key on the calming influence of the dogs," Nichols said.

Autistic children don't connect socially, sometimes not even to their parents, but often they can make a connection with a dog.

"The dog becomes the child's social initiator," she said, telling how she once worked with a child that became so disturbed with the touch of tissue or paper towels that he would become nauseated.

One day as he was tethered to the dog for emotional grounding, the dog became wet from a spill. The child was so concerned for the dog that he picked up paper towels and began wiping the dog off.

"Therapists, parents, everyone began crying," Nichols said. "After that day he was not afraid of paper towels or tissue again."

In the beginning

Bonnie Bergin, a Californian, started the service dog industry about 40 years ago when, as an education master's student, she decided to train a dog herself to help people with mobility disabilities.

"I first went to Guide Dogs to get some suggestions, and they said, 'You can't do it. It can't work,'" she said.

"So I said, 'OK, I'll do it myself.'"

And she did, working with a severely disabled woman willing to give the idea a try.

"Together we worked it out, and now trainers are using the same commands," she said. "I think it was just as much an accident as a lot of inventions, but service dogs have gone way beyond the number of guide dogs, now."

Bergin is now the head of Bergin University of K-9 Studies, where she said trainers are experimenting with teaching dogs to read -- yes, read -- and using returning soldiers who have PTSD to train dogs to help fellow disabled soldiers.

Graduates of the program are now working in 18 countries to raise and train dogs to help people like Jordyn.

Eddie and Jordyn met on Jan. 28.

But the matchmaking began long before that, when she and her mother filed one of about 20 applications to receive one of the three Goodwill dogs.

The girl-and-dog courtship continued through February and March and into April.

The matchmaker was Nichols, who served as Eddie's mom for the first two years of his life.

"They are a great match in personality and so many ways," Nichols said. "They are both friendly, but quiet and laid back."

Jordyn's mom, Joey Miller, smiles and nods.

"Eddie is the doggie version of Jordyn," she said.

Matching critical

Matching service dog and owner is critical, according to trainers.

"In so many ways, the dog becomes the extension of the person," Nichols said.

Since January, Nichols put Eddie and Jordyn and her family together in brief meetings dozens of times -- each one testing every aspect of compatibility.

Nichols visited the Miller home like an adoption agency social worker placing a baby.

She checked out the existing three family pets: Gracie the English bulldog, Bruiser the terrier and Casey the Chihuahua.

Then there was dog camp: two weeks of Jordyn training.

Nichols prefers to call it "team training camp."

Whatever the name, it meant an exhaustive two weeks from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. for Jordyn and her mom.

In about 12 days, they had to cram to learn their positions in the team. They had to learn what Eddie learned in two years.

"It's been tough," said Joey.

"It's been fun, though," said Jordyn, who scored a perfect 100 on her final written exam Tuesday.

It takes a village

Nichols began training Eddie and three other dogs by carrying the pups around in a pouch, recalled Tim Archer, an Unum employee who became a volunteer "Dog at your Desk" trainer.

Unum became a partner with Goodwill when Eddie and his foster siblings were just weeks old.

About 20 volunteers signed up to take the dogs for a few hours each week and teach them office manners.

"You can get all kinds of girlfriends -- or he can," said Archer with a laugh as first one then another Unum employee stopped to talk to the dog in the break room.

"He has changed so much," said Archer, of Eddie's progress, as he steered the dog under his desk to sit quietly as he returned to his office job.

But like people, dogs have different personalities and strengths.

Just as Eddie is great for Jordyn because he is laid back in social situations, Brandy, a shy dog who didn't respond well to distractions in public, needed an owner who is not so social.

So Brandy has been placed in a home setting with a woman whose disability doesn't allow her to leave home often.

The placement is working out well, Nichols said.

A first match for Hamilton II had to bow out at the last moment. Nichols is still evaluating applicants for a match with that very active and vivacious dog.

Some flunk

Hamilton I, though a wonderful dog, flunked out of service training as a puppy.

Service dogs are evaluated for temperament and other traits. Those not up to the standard are offered for adoption or are transferred to programs for other service dogs such as police or search and rescue. Or they are allowed to be adopted by their trainers or sponsors.

Hamilton I became the pet of a Goodwill worker.

"Someone could have spent years training me to be a math genius, and I would have done the best I can, but I'm never going to be a great math scientist. We have to work with what we have," Nichols said.

Jordyn and Eddie's first public outing to the Battlefield Parkway Walmart had seemingly every distraction possible short of tornado or earthquake disaster.

Inside the store -- crammed with people buying last-minute Easter items -- there were food and smells on every aisle, there were elderly folks in electric scooters. A small boy was trying out a bicycle. A baby began screaming incessantly.

Then the father of the screaming baby began walking through the store directly behind Jordyn and Eddie. Twenty feet. Forty feet. The length of the store aisle.

Joey, a Hamilton County teacher by day, turned to give the dad "focus" eye contact. Dad was in his own purgatory and absently turned to a food display.

But Jordyn and Eddie sailed through the aisles with Nichols striding quietly but guardingly behind them.

Going home

April 5 was the big day.

That was the day Eddie went home with Jordyn.

With so many visits and so much time in training with Jordyn at dog camp, Eddie hopped in the Millers' vehicle and never looked back.

"He is completely her dog now," said her mom. "We had trouble getting him off the bed so we could turn her and get her up this morning."

Even Casey the Chihuahua somehow knew after a couple of Eddie visits to give up his dominance as Jordyn's dog.

And Nichols?

"I didn't cry, but I've really missed him. He's my boy," she said. "These are my kids."

But there was no sadness in her voice.

She had just watched another wonderful, bonding workout between Eddie and Jordyn -- one that told her once and for all that the two had bonded.

"He has really adjusted to her. And she's a natural with dogs," said Nichols with a smile that couldn't stop.

"I'm so happy for them."

Friday was graduation day, complete with a ceremony at Unum.

Because Jordyn is so shy, her mom spoke to the audience of volunteer trainers and donors. She drew a laugh when she extended Nichols "continual visiting rights."

But she wiped away tears as she thanked Unum and Goodwill for her daughter's new life partner.

"I watched my daughter step aside from me a little this week," she said, calling the new independence a wonderful thing.

What's next is the real nitty-gritty. School.

Readying for school also was part of the training after Jordyn and Eddie were matched.

In March, Nichols and Jordyn and Eddie made a video that has been shown several times since at the school. The video helps students and teachers understand why it's important that they not talk to Eddie or try to pet him when he is working. They will know when he's working because he'll be wearing his service dog vest.

Next week, he will gradually begin the job of being Jordyn's school partner, as well as her helper at other times.

In May, Nichols and Unum volunteers and the Goodwill Assistance Dog Academy will begin the two-year training process all over again with three new puppies.

And in June, the Millers will go on an annual vacation to the beach.

"What I want to know is if Eddie can pull that wheelchair over the sand," said Jordyn's dad, Tommy Miller.

He winked at Jordyn and Joey.

"That thing just whips me."

about Pam Sohn...

Pam Sohn has been reporting or editing Chattanooga news for 25 years. A Walden’s Ridge native, she began her journalism career with a 10-year stint at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. She came to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1999 after working at the Chattanooga Times for 14 years. She has been a city editor, Sunday editor, wire editor, projects team leader and assistant lifestyle editor. As a reporter, she also has covered the police, ...

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