Assistance Dogs Northwest helps out, one canine at a time

Dog comes to Bainbridge to finish training.

Jenna Clark practices giving commands to Ranger

Jenna Clark practices giving commands to Ranger

Ranger, a lovable Labrador Retriever, has finally his new best friend.

You can tell by the way he nuzzles his head on her foot.

Last week, the long wait was finally over. Jenna Clark, a quadriplegic islander who had been eagerly waiting for her service dog, was ecstatic to welcome Ranger into her life.

Assistance Dogs Northwest is a nonprofit that provides trained dogs to people with disabilities to help them navigate daily obstacles. Ranger’s skills — picking up objects, turning on lights, opening doors and barking for help — will help Clark live more independently.

“He’ll have a big impact,” Clark said. “Let’s say I’m out in a store, and then I drop something. Usually I have to wait for either whoever I’m with or a stranger to pick up the object for me. But with Ranger, I feel comfortable going out in public.”

They’re a match made in heaven; the two were teamed based on Ranger’s level of assertiveness and responsiveness.

“It’s kind of like Match.com,” said Maureen Maurer, founder and executive director of Assistance Dogs Northwest.

“We have these questionnaires and then match them up,” she explained. “And it really works great because then we have a dog that’s just the right personality for that person.”

Before being placed, service dogs undergo a training regime that can last up to two years. They need to be reliable, mature and focused — lives may depend upon it.

Ranger was trained in Hawaii and brought to Bainbridge for the Team Training Camp, allowing Clark to practice giving commands while Ranger honed his skills.

Not only can the dogs perform amazing tasks, they are also inherently good companions, being man’s best friend and all.

“A big component for a lot of people is the companionship,” Maurer said. “And Ranger is a very personable dog and very affectionate, and that was something that Jenna wanted.”

Maurer loves seeing the new partnerships her program creates.

“Jenna is a fantastic student,” she said. “And a really, really good partner for a service dog. She’s super smart and very intuitive. We know that Ranger’s going to be in great hands.”

Maureen and Will Maurer founded Assistance Dogs of Hawaii in 2000, after moving there from Seattle. Applications from the Pacific Northwest started pouring in, so they started placing dogs here six years ago.

They recently decided it would be helpful to have a campus and program that could support the area. Thus, Assistance Dogs Northwest was born.

“This is something I’ve wanted to do since I was little,” Maurer said about her job. “I remember reading a book about guide dogs and just being fascinated with the idea of dogs being able to help people.”

Almost 20 years ago, she had been working as an accountant when she had a health scare and was told she might only have six months to live.

“The first thing I thought of was, ‘Darn it, I never did what I always wanted to do’ — which was this,” she said. “So when I was OK, I sold my CPA practice and went back to school and started the nonprofit.

“That’s why I love every minute of this. And each team that graduates is just so inspiring to me, and I’m so thankful to do it.”

Assistance Dogs Northwest does lifetime follow-up support with graduates of the program, and it’s easy to notice a positive change in their lives.

“A lot of people say that their service dogs make their wheelchair disappear,” Maurer said. “And that people approach them and see the dog, and it’s a real icebreaker and a positive thing that people can focus on.”

The dogs make people more confident and independent, she said.

And while it may not sound like a big deal, having a pooch pick up a dropped item makes a huge difference; it’s not easy to always ask for help from family and friends.

The Montessori Country School offered their venue for the summer, which is not only being used for the Team Training Camp, but also for puppy class once a week. The arrangement allows the puppies, who have foster families in the region, to learn commands while they’re being raised.

But they’re still looking for property on Bainbridge Island to build a permanent campus. About two to five acres is needed, close to the ferry, with a house or bare land, cleared, and hopefully on a level lot. Maurer said they need to find a spot soon or they will have to look elsewhere. Islanders who want to help can contact Assistance Dogs Northwest at 206-321-0592, or check out their website for more info at www.assistancedogsnorthwest.org.

“These partnerships help the dog and the person reach their full potential,” Maurer said. “And that’s what’s most inspiring.”

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