Service Dogs of Virginia celebrates canine class of 2016

Service Dogs of Virginia celebrated a pack of impeccably trained animal companions and the impact they are having on people’s lives at the organization’s annual graduation ceremony on Sunday.

The organization trains dogs to provide physical assistance for people in wheelchairs, offer support for children with autism and other psychological disorders, and to alert people with diabetes when their blood sugar becomes dangerously low.

Service Dogs of Virginia matched 11 dogs with clients from around the state in 2016, the largest “graduating class” since the organization was founded in 2000. At Sunday’s ceremony in the Walker Upper Elementary School auditorium, each dog was introduced by someone who helped to raise or train it. Then the dogs appeared on stage with grateful new handlers and their family members.

Elementary school student Samuel Miller said his golden retriever, Addie, helps him manage anxiety and tics caused by obsessive-compulsive disorder. “Addie is friendly and playful, but she also likes to be lazy,” Samuel said. “She helps us feel happy at home.”

Samuel’s mother, Caroline, said Addie has given her son “a deeper sense of empathy and compassion.”

Anita Ratliff said her autistic granddaughter is comforted by the presence of her service dog, Charlie, even though she often avoids physical contact with people. “We know that touch is essential to human beings,” Ratliff said. “[Charlie] is how my granddaughter is receiving touch.”

Volunteer puppy raiser Karla McCollough said Charlie, a black Labrador retriever, had to overcome a fear of grocery store refrigerators and other obstacles before he was cleared to work as a service dog.

Brandon Payton, paralyzed two years ago in a car crash, gets help with routine tasks from his physical-assistance dog, a black Lab named Tyvek. But Payton said the dog also has changed his outlook on life.

“These dogs inspire us in many ways that you don’t get to see,” Payton told the audience. “Tyvek inspires me to think differently about myself and the things I can do.”

Payton thanked the Service Dogs of Virginia staff, volunteers and donors who helped him get his first physical-assistance dog. “I like to think about [getting a service dog] as a beautiful puzzle. Every piece comes together,” he said.

Turning mischievous puppies into a companion responsible for a person’s safety is a long and difficult process. Service Dogs of Virginia relies on volunteers to raise puppies, and to take care of dogs on nights and weekends during their advanced training course at the organization’s Charlottesville headquarters.

Once the group matches a dog to a client, the dog participates in a two-week workshop to begin bonding with its new handler.

“It’s like learning to dance with a partner, said Peggy Law, executive director of Service Dogs of Virginia. “The dog knows the steps of the dance, but it can’t lead. The person has to learn how to lead it.”

Dog trainer Linda Morris said people interested in hosting service-dogs-in-training are sometimes afraid they would become too attached to a puppy to give it away.

“Oh, yes, you can give [the dog] up,” Morris said. “Because they will change a life. And there is no better thing than being a part of that.”