It’s a Dog’s Life
SGR tax and trust attorney Kristen Lewis and Visual and Social Media Coordinator Sarah Weikel explain the many and varied benefits of pet and animal therapy.
As a volunteer for the non-profit organization Canine Assistants, SGR tax and trust attorney Kristen Lewis often sees firsthand the good that can come when you, quite literally, let your money go to the dogs.
Specializing in representing families with disabled or special needs children, Kristen first came across Canine Assistants when she noticed that several clients had included charitable bequests to the organization in their wills. Curious to find out more, Kristen took her daughter’s Girl Scout troop on a day trip to the organization’s headquarters in Alpharetta, Ga. and instantly fell in love with the puppies. Involved with Canine Assistants from that day on, she has since helped many of her clients apply for and receive service and seizure response dogs.
Canine Assistants was founded in Atlanta by Jennifer Arnold and her late father Harry, a physician. In 1980, when the 16-year-old Arnold was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and forced to spend much of her time in a wheelchair, the family applied for a service dog from an organization in California.
However, they found there was a lengthy waiting list and were told that applicants on the West Coast took priority.
Frustrated by the lack of available help, Arnold’s father decided to start a similar program in Georgia. Sadly, only two weeks after the first meeting to develop the initial business plan for Canine Assistants, he was run down and killed by a drunk driver while walking near the family home. Although it took 10 more years for Arnold and her mother to finally achieve the dream, their ambitions have now been fully realized. At any one time, the organization has up to 150 dogs in training, and there are now more than 1,000 Canine Assistants-trained dogs placed throughout the country.
TRAINING STARTS AT A DAY OLD
Kristen’s first volunteer job was as a community trainer, introducing the young dogs into social situations. Since labor wards and operating rooms are the only two public places where service dogs cannot legally go, the SGR offices seemed the perfect training ground for the young dogs’ newly developed skills. “Bringing two young Labrador Retrievers into a quiet law office wasn’t the most popular idea at first,” Kristen recalls. “But within a week, people were coming from all departments to see the dogs. They were a huge hit!”
Because of their subservience and willingness to please and perform tasks, Canine Assistants’ service dogs primarily are Labrador and golden retrievers. Training starts when the dogs are a day old when they can start learning to trust human contact. After about five or six weeks, the dogs progress from the puppy “nursery” to the puppy “barn.” When they are a year old, they move to the “big-dog house” where they finish their training. By the time they are two years old, the dogs will have learned how to perform such tasks as opening and closing doors, turning on and off lights, pulling wheelchairs and picking up dropped objects.
Seizure response dogs are trained to perform more detailed and important tasks, such as going to get help, bringing a telephone, medicine, water and pillows, pressing an emergency help button or even laying on top of their owner to prevent them from harming themselves. Even more incredible is the ability of some dogs to predict the onset of a seizure. It’s something that can’t be taught, but in Kristen’s experience some 90 percent of dogs that have been with an owner for more than six months can not only sense the onset of a seizure but also alert the owner that it’s about to happen. “The dog develops a unique alert signal — it could be a specific way of pawing, licking or barking,” Kristen explains. “But it will be the same mannerism every time. It’s incredible.”
After five years as a community trainer, Kristen took a “mommy” dog named Julie into her home. When the dog had its very first litter, in 2007, the organization named each puppy after a famous lawyer in honor of Kristen’s own profession. “There’s an old saying that it takes a village to raise a child, and the same is true with service dogs,” Kristen explains. “It takes thousands of hours and the selfless help of many people to train a service dog — from people like myself who have breeder dogs, to the people who house the mommy and daddy dogs. It really is a huge team effort.”