ESSAY- Pooch policy: Raising 'fetch' to a new level

Picture this: a dog that can flip your lights on and off, bring you the cordless, and fetch that bag of Cheez Doodles that is way too far away in the kitchen.

While you were at your holiday parties, schmoozing with mere humans, I was at the holiday open house at Service Dogs of Virginia, here in Charlottesville, where I schmoozed with party animals the likes of which I bet you've never seen.

And it wasn't all Beaujolais and Brie. We were watching these amazing dogs– a Great Dane, Labrador retrievers, and mutts– display their bag of tricks, and I'm thinking: Sweet. I could use one of these. Who wouldn't want a dog with these talents?

Many of the dogs from this organization are paired with people who are confined to wheelchairs. The dogs, in addition to offering companionship to their handicapped owners, can fetch just about anything. They can open and close doors and drawers, and turn switches on and off.

Gryphon– a puppy the size of a Mazda Miata– is a Great Dane getting trained as a balance dog, the "somebody to lean on" for a person with disabling equilibrium problems.

There are even dogs to assist people with autism. Very young autistic children who tend to bolt into the street can be restrained or retrieved by the service dog. (Good dog, Carl!) 

SDV also trains dogs to know when your blood sugar is rising or falling to a dangerous level. Elsewhere, service dogs are trained to sense an impending seizure.

This makes Lassie, with her "Timmy's fallen in the well!" trick look pretty lame, if you ask me. What– no brainwave or blood sugar monitoring ability? Feh!

I'm watching these dogs go through their paces at the holiday get-together and instead of thinking about the recipients and their disabilities, I'm thinking about yours truly. 

I could use one of these dogs– oh, yeah. 

Look, I have attention deficit disorder, and that's a kind of disability, right? When I'm headed for the grocery store, which is temptingly close to Marshall's, a well-trained service dog could stop me from walking toward the discount store, maybe grab my sleeve and growl, and pull me into Giant instead. Think of the money I'd save!

Or how about this for a killer app: They could train a dog (How about a poodle? I really like poodles.) whose job would be to watch me as I use my computer– just sit there and keep an eye on the screen. 

If I'm supposed to be working, then only my word processing screen should be visible. If Fifi (I've just named my fantasy service dog) sees Facebook or graphics, she would growl and nip at my ankles until I go back to the writing screen. 

I am a genius. 

So, when the demonstration was over, I asked Peggy Law (founder and director of training) how much it costs to train one of these amazing dogs. 

Turns out, the cost to Service Dogs of Virginia, over the acquisition, training, and follow-up period, is a whopping $18,000 per pup. 

(Okay, maybe a teensy bit more than I can afford.)

However, the cost is not passed along to the disabled recipient, who pays just $500, and in return, gets a trained service dog plus about $500's worth of dog-maintenance equipment.

Imagine what a life-transforming event it must be, as someone immobilized by illness or injury, to have one of these astonishing dogs come into your life and suddenly, with the loyal assistance of your wonder pup, you're able to open and close doors, turn lights on and off, and answer the phone, just like everyone else.

I'm grateful that I have no legitimate need (so far) for such an animal, but my mind still wanders to just how cool it would be. 

No doubt, I will continue to fantasize about having a dog who can sniff out my wandering cordless phone, and to whom I could say, "Yo, Fifi, bring me a beer!"


Janis Jaquith enjoys her beer in Free Union.


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For more information about the astonishing Service Dogs of Virginia, check out their website.

Want to be a puppy raiser for them? Check out this video: