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Companion Service Dog helps disabled woman in Alaska

Companion Service Dog Helps Disabled Woman in Alaska

A woman with MS finds independence and companionship from an exceptional dog
© Ron Levy 2020
(This article was first published in MSPCA’s Animals Magazine, March 1989.  It has been updated here)
It was ten below and dark outside when they got home. In Alaska, what light there is starts fading around 3:00 PM in December; street lights and headlights stay on all day. It is a challenging life for those accustomed to a more “normal” existence in the Lower 48, but they were used to challenges.
In fact, the need to overcome tremendous obstacles is what brought them together in the first place. And at this moment, the fact that they hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast bothered them more than the Alaskan cold or darkness.
He walked into the dark house, flicked on the lights, and grabbed something out of the refrigerator. She couldn’t see what it was at first, until he laid it on the kitchen table. It was his dog food. Altos, a two-year old companion service dog was ready for dinner.
For Thea Zumwalt, a 33-year old professional artist disabled from multiple sclerosis (MS), the partnership has brightened her life immeasurably. I first heard about her through a nationwide ABC Special in 1987 hosted by Roger Caras which profiled three unique, disabled individuals who had very special relationships with their service dogs.
“Altos has changed my life in many ways,” she says. “He has allowed me to explore modes of communication that I wouldn’t have discovered otherwise. I can tell him to lie down just with my eyes and facial expression.”Living by herself in Soldotna, Alaska, a small town 150 miles south of anchorage, Thea was first diagnosed with MS in 1976 and has been confined to a wheelchair for the last six years.
Though the disease affects many parts of the body, the primary effect is to gradually restrict body movements until everyday activities like walking and standing become impossible. Realizing this would eventually happen, Thea was looking or ways to make her life easier when she heard about Canine companions for Independence (CCI).
Established in 1975 by Bonnie Bergin, a teacher with a Master’s degree in Special Education, CCI had a new way of looking at an old problem. Her initial inspiration came from heart-wrenching scenes she witnessed while teaching abroad. In Turkey, Nepal and India, she routinely saw handicapped people limping, crawling, and hobbling in the streets., sometimes by themselves and occasionally with the help of a donkey. She began to realize that what handicapped people needed most of all, regardless of where they lived, where the feelings of independence, acceptance and self-worth.
Traditional solutions back in the United States involved placing individuals in institutions or providing expensive, full-time home health care. This was helpful but didn’t really address the patients underlying emotional needs.
Realizing that donkeys were impractical in the United States, Bergin focused her attention on dogs. Because of their proven ability to help blind and deaf people, and their capacity to unconditionally love and accept anyone without regard for race, age, or physical appearance, they were a natural choice.
After expending a tremendous amount of time, effort and personal finances, Bonnie’s first CCI dog was trained in 1976. Now with regional offices around the country, world-wide media recognition, and a presidential commendation, CCI has trained more than 400 dogs to assist disabled people. Their latest annual budget, at more than $2 million, must cover the costs to train and raise each dog – an average expenditure of $10,000 per dog. [Ed note: These are 1989 figures when article was first published. As of 2018, total expenses exceed $27 million].

Altos carrying shopping basket in Safeway


Altos bringing the correct hair spray to Thea

Since most of the CCI’s support comes from donations by concerned individuals and organizations, the disabled recipient is only responsible for the affordable $125 registration fee. Over the 10-year working life of these dogs, they can save their owners as much as $90,000 in health care costs.
Four types of dogs are trained at CCI centers: social, signal, service and specialty dogs.
Social dogs are trained to provide love and companionship for individuals who are elderly, mentally ill, developmentally disabled, or otherwise unable to socially interact. In these cases, family members or an assistant help provide care for the dog. Numerous studies around the wold have documented the immediate and extraordinary effects these dogs have had on depression, loneliness, and lowered self-esteem. According to psychologist Ginger Hamilton, “These animals have the ability to break down barriers that we don’t even fully understand yet.”
Signal dogs function as the alert ears of deaf or hearing-impaired people. They are trained to respond to a wide variety of sounds, including the ring of a telephone, an alarm clock, a smoke detector, and even the cry of a baby Upon hearing the sound, the dog nudges its owner and runs back to the sound.
Service dogs, like Altos, assist people who are physically challenged. They act as the arms and legs for people with diseases such as multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, and other neurological and orthopedic problems.
Specialty dogs are service dogs that are custom-trained for people with multiple disabilities, such as someone who is deaf and also confined to a wheelchair. Both service and specialty dogs are trained to obey 89 commands. Their repertoire of deeds ranges from basic sit-stay responses to turning lights on and off, mailing letters, picking up dropped items, pressing elevator buttons, giving money to cashiers, opening refrigerator doors, picking up the phone, and simply snuggling and kissing.
One of the most important duties is pulling a wheelchair. By letting their dogs chauffeur them around, owners can accomplish twice as many errands as they previously could without the energy loss that used to shorten their days.
As expected, training a service dog is no easy matter and lasts almost two years. Supervised by a resident veterinarian, dogs are selected based on their lineage, temperament, working ability, and health. Because of their long history of working and helping humans, the breeds most often selected are golden and Labrador retrievers, German shepherd, border collie, and Pembroke Welsh corgi.
CCI-bred puppies are them placed in carefully chosen foster homes. These families have volunteered their time, effort and personal money for the difficult but rewarding task of raising these dogs. During the 2-15 months the pups remain in these homes, they are taken to regular obedience classes where they learn the first 49 commands. Puppy raisers are also required to submit regular reports to CCI detailing the progress of their animals.
At 18 months, the pups are enrolled in CCI “college.” During this six-month, two-semester class, they work with a professional trainer perfecting their basic skills and learning 40 additional commands tailored to the needs of disabled people. After college comes the final and most important phase of their training – an intense two-week internship, affectionately known as boot camp, where dogs and their potential owners meet for the first time.
The first day was unbelievable,” recalls Thea. “There were about 12 of us in this room, and a man came walking in with about 15 dogs on two leashes. You get pretty intimidated by all the barking, active dogs in the room. Then they do exactly what you fear – they let them loose and you’re barraged with dogs everywhere.”
This initial encounter is planned so that dogs and people can get to know each other informally before school begins. “In a way, it’s good,” Thea explains, “because you are expecting these superdogs when you first arrive, and you realize that they are just dogs, running all over the place, and that it’s still going to take a lot of work.”
Students are first taught to “focus the chaos” by moving around the room with one of the dogs. Learning to control the dog is not only necessary for a successful partnership, but also provides leadership skills and a boost of self-confidence to the owners. They are taught that controlling the dog does not necessarily occur by physical means. Correct tone of voice, eye contact, and serious persistence are more important then any physical corrections.
Two important concepts are also stressed. One is that dogs are not mechanical devices; each dog doesn’t respond the same way in every situation. They have their own personalities, motivations and backgrounds, and they key is to use a dog’s motivations – whether it’s with a nice tone of voice or petting (but not food) – to get the desired result. Punishment is taboo, both for the dogs sake and because positive reinforcement is infinitely more effective, say CCI trainers.

Altos turning on light in the dark of winter

How Altos asks for dinner

The second concept is called patterning. Commands are simply repeated and reinforced until performed correctly The dog is never allowed to evade a command and must perform it to the owner’s complete satisfaction. “There’s a lot of stress to overcome and you can get easily overloaded in boot camp,” Thea remembers. But she echoes the comments of other CCI graduates when she says, “All the trouble is worth it.”
While students are working with their dogs, the staff is observing the interaction between dogs and their potential owners. Initial pairings may change throughout the session in order to match appropriate personalities and abilities. The dog must be able to complement a person’s strengths while compensating for his or her weaknesses.
Approximately 80 percent of the dogs that begin the program actually finish. Those that don’t pass a particular stage are either retrained in another class or placed with the foster homes that raised them, according to CCI. A dog that has reached the end of its working days may also return to the family that raised it if the handicapped owners is unable to care for the dog in its retirement. CCI also keeps a list of people who want to adopt the retired dogs.
Owners and dogs must pass a final exam that requires them to visit the local mall and perform specific tasks. Accompanying them but remaining completely out of their view is a CCI “spy” observing their interaction and reporting to both student and staff afterward. No dogs or human participants pass without proving their ability.
Graduation day is one of intense emotions for everybody. Diplomas and cheers mark the tremendous accomplishments of owners and dogs, and the bonds that have only begun to form. Trainers and puppy raisers see their dogs for the last time. Amid floods of tears comes the consolation that the time, effort and love they have given to their puppies will be returned over and over to people in greater need.
And there is the acknowledgement that the challenges are not over. The adjustment to home life will require the fine-tuning of skills learned at school and constant adaptations to new situations. For Thea, this involved such things as teaching Altos to pick up his metal food bowl. “He hates metal. He’ll do anything to avoid picking up metal. He’ll turn on lights, bring me his bone, lie down…but he hates metal.”
Despite this, Thea insists that he pick up whatever she wants, be it metal or not, and he does. “He can even pick up a nickel from the floor and give it to me, and that was something he didn’t learn in school.”
One of the biggest adjustments Thea and Altos have had to make involves interacting with other people. The awkwardness that many able-bodied people feel when talking to someone in a wheelchair often melts when an animal is present.
Altos has introduced Thea to hundreds of people whom she wouldn’t have met otherwise. And he loves the attention. Yet for a dog with his responsibilities, this can be a liability at times.
If he is too distracted from outside influence, he can’t be attentive to my needs as well”, Thea emphasizes. “People need to know that when he is with me, he is working, and he should only be allowed to socialize with others if I give him permission to do so. Otherwise he gets too wound up and won’t listen as well.”
Independence isn’t easy, but the rewards go far beyond increased mobility. “He is a tool for my survival, both physically and emotionally. Through him I’ve learned to observe how others respond to me, and how I can change my habits and attitudes to get the things I need in my life.”

Naturally, the need for companionship is important, and CCI dogs are ready 24 hours a day to listen to their owner’s problems, play with them, make them laugh, and lick their tears. This dog is tuned in,” says Thea. “He my best buddy. When I feel miserable, he puts his head on my chest and comforts me.”
Through the Alaskan winter, Altos has been there to help Thea navigate through Soldotna’s snowy walkways and offer the extra warmth these cold days demand.
For other CCI graduates, too, dogs like Altos have opened more than physical doors. With the help of these canine companions, they have reentered world that was closed them sometimes since birth. It’s a transformation that happens repeatedly every day, and reminds us that no matter what our circumstances are in life, a dog may be a friendly companion eager to help.

~   ~   ~


In 2005, 16 years after this article appeared in Animals Magazine, I caught up with Thea, who was living in a local 24 hour care facility. She was 54 years old and could barely move her hands and fingers. but her spirits were good and she really liked the nurses who cared for her.

Thea and her nurse Marik at the facility she stayed in during her final years

Thea had taken up painting again. She had always been a gifted watercolor artist, and her prints have been sold in local galleries for many years before she could not use her hands any more.
But now she was painting by mouth. It was challenging and frustrating for her, but she persisted, the same fierce persistence that allowed her to survive as long as she did.

Painting was always her therapy of choice

Thea died about a year after this last photo was taken. It was a somber moment for the community, but her strength and spirit was an inspiration that resonated with all who met her, and the millions who learned about her through the media.
The warmth she brought to others was only exceeded by the warmth her companion dog Altos brought to her during those numerous long winters.
Photos & text © Ron Levy
Update #2:
After Thea died, her family gave me a book that she was given after Altos had died in 1998. Altos was the most special dog in Thea’s life, I had many good times and memories with Altos as well. Thea’s family knew I was a dog lover, and this gift touched me deeply in many ways.

Letter from CCI after original article published:

 The CCI website can be found at

Ron Levy’s images have been published internationally for over 3 decades, including exhibitions in museums and galleries in the US, Europe and Asia. He has been a photography instructor at the University of Alaska, and does pro bono support for agencies and NGOs specializing in health and conservation issues worldwide. He has also guided hundreds of travelers on nature, photo and historical excursions in Alaska, California, Arizona and Ecuador over the last 35 years.

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