Dog of the Day
by Kelly Luker
Indy is the best friend a guy could have. He picks up Mike’s laundry, keeps him safe on walks, makes sure he takes his medications, and even grabs the water from the fridge for the Viet Nam veteran’s pills. Most importantly, Indy has given Mike a reason to live. Hawaii Fi-Do, a nonprofit organization that trains and places service dogs, teamed the three-year-old Labrador with Mike last year.
Founded in 1999 by Oahu resident Susan Luehrs, the program provides service dogs not only to wounded warriors like Mike, but also to special-needs children as well. Asked what inspired her, Susan explained that as a special-education teacher, she would often bring dogs into her classroom. She noticed that when the students had a dog with them, other kids would reach out rather than taunt or ignore them. Students who may have acted out would find solace in hugging the dogs or playing ball with them rather than hitting a wall.
When Luehrs began Hawaii Fi-Do, there were no accredited service-dog organizations in Hawaii. The Lions Club provided her with a grant to become certified on the mainland as a service-dog trainer. In exchange, she agreed to set up a program to pair service dogs with at-risk youths. The kids helped train, exercise and groom the dogs, and also helped bring them to visit hospital patients. Luehrs saw the kids’ self-esteem grow as well as their skills at impulse control. The program has since expanded to young adults and now also serves as a vocational training program.
Other children may require a full-time service dog. Ten-year-old Megan had several medical issues including allergies and asthma. She was also diagnosed with a form of autism known as Asperger’s syndrome, which triggered “horrendous” tantrums. Suki came to the rescue, thanks to Hawaii Fi-Do. Alerting family members to Megan’s seizures or asthma attacks, the black Labradoodle has saved the young girl’s life more than once. She also saved the parents’ sanity—and helped Megan develop into who she is today: a talkative 15-year-old Girl Scout.
For all its beauty, Hawaii also provides a host of challenges to the organization. “Being isolated as we are,” Luehrs says, “the gene pool (for dogs) is pretty polluted.” Luehrs originally imported her dogs from Australia because Hawaii’s quarantine guidelines with the U.S. mainland were so daunting. She now either breeds her own dogs or uses a few carefully chosen breeders in Hawaii, explaining that she believes service dogs must be bred for certain innate traits. Luehrs uses Labradors, Golden Retrievers and Labradoodles, all breeds that can withstand the tropical heat. Additionally, Hawaii Fi-Do dogs must perform to Assistance Dogs International (ADI) standards, a training process that takes about two years and also involves teaching the recipient. “We work with the individuals for the life of the dog,” says Luehrs.
Because of its numerous military installations, Hawaii has a disproportionate number of veterans. Luehrs estimates there are 350 veterans on the island who are physically or emotionally disabled from combat. She noted that many, like Mike, suffer from multiple disabilities.
Mike may lose his balance because of dizzy spells, so Indy knows when to brace herself so he won’t fall. She will stay with him when he has seizures and will help him find his way back home when, because of dementia, he becomes disoriented. Like Suki, Indy is a healing salve for the wounds not so easily seen. Luehrs reports that the Lab has done wonders for Mike’s depression.
The dogs are placed for free if the recipient cannot pay. To make that happen, Hawaii Fi-Do depends upon its dedicated volunteer force. Foster puppy raisers take the dogs into their homes for the first year in order to teach them basic obedience and socialization skills. With no federal or state grants, the group also depends on its volunteers for fundraising, marketing, and donations.
Despite the need, Luehrs is committed to keeping Hawaii Fi-Do small. “If you get too big you lose that one-on-one interaction,” she says. “The human element is so important in what we do.”
The mission of Hawaii Fi-Do is to train assistance dogs to provide physical, psychological and therapeutic support for people who face the daily challenges of life with a disability other than blindness. Love of people and animals guide all Hawaii Fi-Do Service Dog programs and services. For more information or to offer support, go to www.hawaiifido.org.
Kelly Luker owns Little Pup Lodge (www.littlepuplodge.com), a cage-free boarding facility designed exclusively for small dogs. She has written for Runner's World, Salon.com and various alternative weeklies.