Canine companion to help woman with MS

May 21, 2013
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Katie Roupe/Observer-Reporter
April Childers works with her student, Alicia Kolson, 7, on a piece of music. Childers is a violin teacher at JK Musicians Workshop in Washington. Order a Print
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Katie Roupe/Observer-Reporter
April Childers, who has multiple sclerosis and a connective tissue disorder, will soon be receiving a service dog to help her with her daily living activities. Order a Print
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Katie Roupe/Observer-Reporter
Karen Jardine and April Childers talk about plans for an upcoming music recital. Childers commutes from Wheeling, W.Va., to teach at JK Musicians Workshop. Order a Print

They say that dog is man’s best friend.

But in April Childers’ case, a dog is also a life-changing companion, capable of unloading a dryer, standing on his hind legs to hand a wallet to a store cashier, and turning the lights on and off.

At the age of 21, Childers, a violinist, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, which has affected her ability to walk and perform routine tasks. She also has limited vision in one eye.

In June, she will be paired with Dale, a 2-year-old black Labrador retriever from Canine Partners for Life, a nonprofit organization that trains dogs to assist people with a range of physical and mental disabilities.

Dale will help Childers with her balance and mobility, which have deteriorated because of MS and Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a connective tissue disorder that prevents her from producing collagen – which contributes to the strength of joints, skin, muscle, ligaments and blood vessels – properly. For Childers, 35, the mother of three children, ages 14, 11 and 4, tasks like navigating stairs (there are 30 steps leading to her front door), opening doors and carrying laundry baskets leave her exhausted, and Dale will do all of those for her. At different times, Childers uses a wheelchair, crutches and a cane.

“I’m so excited, it’s ridiculous,” said Childers, a Wheeling, W.Va., resident who is a violin teacher at JK Musicians Workshop in Washington and a violinist in the first violin section of the Washington Symphony Orchestra. “The anticipation is a lot like when I was pregnant with my kids.

“I do have a pretty hard time getting around my house, so I hope to be able to get around better. Right now there are so many things I don’t do because it involves walking, which requires so much energy. I’ll be able to go do more things without my family worrying about me.”

Childers will attend a three-week program at CPL’s 45-acre property in Cochraneville, near Philadelphia, where she will train and bond with Dale.

CPL dogs undergo two years of training to meet the specific needs of their human partners.

The key to success, said CPL executive director Darlene Sullivan, is pairing the right dog with the right partner.

In Childers’ case, Dale will accompany her to WSO concerts. While Childers is performing, Dale will remain on stage throughout her concerts, so she bought Dale Mutt Muffs, headphones to protect his hearing from high-decibel noises.

“In a lot of ways it’s more of a commitment than when I got married or had kids because Dale will be with me 24 hours a day,” she said.

Sullivan said one other service dog is partnered with a musician, a cellist.

“It sounds like Dale’s going to have an interesting life. Our guys undergo pretty extensive training, and they’re trained to feel comfortable in all environments. We have high school students who want to go to rock concerts, and their service dogs accompany them. They’re prepared for anything,” said Sullivan.

Since it was founded in 1989, Canine Partners has placed more than 500 service and home companion dogs in 43 states.

Canine Partners has 40 to 50 puppies being raised by volunteers at any given time. Puppy homes are volunteers who agree to raise a seven-week-old puppy in their homes for 12 to 18 months. The puppy home is responsible for providing the pup with basic obedience training, house manners and exposure to public environments.

During the second year of training, puppies learn specialized service dog tasks that they will perform for their human partner.

For the first six months Dale lives with Childers, no one is permitted to say his name or make eye contact with him as the pair gets to know each other and spend time together – something that won’t be easy for the family eager to love Dale.

The total cost to raise, train, place and provide lifetime support for each CPL dog is estimated at more than $27,000.

Canine Partners uses a sliding scale based on income to determine a donation request for each recipient, ranging from $1,000 to $3,000.

The wait list for a CPL dog is up to 18 months, but Childers was on the list for just four months before she got a call that she was getting Dale.

“I wasn’t expecting it to happen that quickly,” said Childers. “I got to meet Dale and walk with him during my interview at the Cochraneville facility, but I didn’t know at the time I was going to be matched with him. I didn’t pay attention to him because I didn’t want to do anything to interfere with his training. Now, I can’t wait to see him again.”

Childers and organist Janice Takavec will perform at a benefit concert at 3 p.m. May 19 at Jefferson United Methodist Church, Jefferson, Greene County. A reception will follow. Donations will be accepted to defray the cost of Childers’ $1,000 donation for Dale and additional travel and living expenses during training, six follow-up training sessions during the first year, and costs to change light fixtures and doorknobs in her home.

Karen Mansfield is an award-winning journalist and mom of five who has been a staff writer for the Observer-Reporter since 1988. She enjoys reading, the Pittsburgh Steelers, a good glass of wine and nice people.

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