Paws-ability: Dogs’ assistance immeasurable

From the FMS Global News Desk of Jeanne Hambleton (UK)

Courtesy – © 2009 Star Tribune. All rights reserved.

Shelley  Hiemer has fibromyalgia

Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

Shelly Hiemer and her service dog, Grace demonstrated how a service dog helps with

shopping at a Franklin Ave Coop grocery store.

By KRISTIN TILLOTSON, Star Tribune – April 17, 2009 


Seeing-eye dogs have long been used to help their owners around town. But a Minneapolis nonprofit trains loyal canines to do so much more for people with disabilities — such as opening doors, making bank deposits and helping them get dressed.

The job of most family dogs is simple. They are to bark when the doorbell rings, try to resist garbage diving and be really, really happy to see their humans when they get home. Those slacker pooches have it easy. A 4-year-old black Lab named Grace regularly opens and shuts doors, pulls packaged grocery items off shelves, carries handbag essentials in her vest like a sort of living purse, tugs her owner’s socks off at night, and fetches dropped cell phones and TV remotes. She appears to love every minute it.

Grace is no circus act. She was trained for practical purposes at Hearing and Service Dogs of Minnesota (HSDM), the most helpful little canine-related group you never heard of. Tucked into a semi-industrial area of south Minneapolis, the nonprofit has been quietly matching dogs with disabled people for 20 years.

Alan Peters, executive director of Hearing and Service Dogs, was successful in real estate and insurance sales before deciding at age 35 to “do what I could to put dogs and people together for curative effects,” he said.

Aided by a legion of volunteer puppy raisers and trainers, including many Lions Club members, 70 to 100 dogs are now placed annually. About half are rescued from shelters. They comprise a wide variety of breeds, including some you might not expect.

“We have placed everything from a 6-pound Malty-poo to a 92-pound Doberman,” said HSDM spokeswoman Shelly Hiemer. “A lot of breeds can be trained. It just might take longer with the smarter ones.” (Some terriers, for example, balk at first, but come around eventually.)

At the moment, a plucky, pint-sized Yorkie named Tex was learning to pick up dropped keys at HSDM’s ground zero, a mini-gym outfitted with tugging ropes tied to door and drawer handles, a battered cell phone for retrieval practice and a handicapped-door button on one wall.

“Smaller dogs cannot be guides, act as ballast or open doors,” Hiemer said. “But they can pick up small objects and alert owners who cannot hear ringing phones, doorbells or smoke alarms.”

Clients come from seven states and include people with a wide range of disabilities: autism, hearing impairment, quadriplegia. In a way, the dogs themselves have a say in their placement.

“We figure out what they most love to do, and then find a match on the waiting list,” Hiemer said.

Grace, the black Lab, is Hiemer’s service dog. Hiemer, who was a client of HSDM before getting a job there, has the joint and muscle condition fibromyalgia, which makes it painful for her to do things like carry a purse. She also has diabetes, and Grace can smell the chemical change in Hiemer’s body when her blood sugar is getting low, alerting her before she gets disoriented or loses consciousness.

“She is a dual-service dog,” Hiemer said. “She can pick up something as small as a dime, or drag a laundry basket — even picks up my husband’s dirty socks on occasion.”

On a trip to the Seward Co-op, Grace gamely soft-mouthed bags of brown sugar and snack chips for delivery to Hiemer’s cart. As they turned into the coffee aisle, they ran into two fellow students. Hayley, a smooth-coated collie, and Belle, a golden retriever, were practicing how to stay calm around lots of tempting food smells with trainers Angela Olson and Leslie Flowers.

It can take up to two years and $25,000 to prepare a dog for service, depending on the needs of the client. Trainers include four out in “the field,” within 100 miles of the Twin Cities, and inmates at Faribault Correctional Facility, where the program is one of the most popular jobs.

Only 50 to 60 percent of dogs that begin the program “graduate,” for various reasons, including health and temperament. Only puppies and young-adult dogs are chosen, so that once they are trained they are likely to be able to give many years of service — and, of course, undying love.

The canine traits of unconditional devotion and steadfast loyalty are a special bonus. Human helpers can get exasperated, picking up an object that was just dropped for the 50th time by an arthritic hand.

“Dogs never do,” Hiemer said.




 For more information on Hearing and Service Dogs of Minnesota,email or call  Kristin Tillotson

•612-729-5986. Watch video of service dogs in training at And they provide these dogs free of charge to their disabled clients! The staff, trainers, and puppy raisers deserve our highest praise.



SEE for another dog story


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