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Kathy and Cassie

A New Leash on Life

BY KERRY MCKENZIE

Over the last six years, Cassie has been to some amazing places. She’s been to some of the finest restaurants and some of the biggest dives. She’s been on a cruise. She’s even been to a rock concert. But Cassie’s life is not all fun and games. She’s a service dog, and when her harness goes on, she has a job to do.

“Having a service dog is wonderful, but it’s a big commitment,” says Kathy Kimmel, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1995 and was matched with Cassie in 2009. “However, the commitment is worth it.”

Cassie has short, golden hair and deep brown eyes. When she is working, she is hyper-focused with a serious, but not stern look on her face. When she’s not working, she is playful and kind with a tireless smile. She is dependable, smart and loyal. Cassie has never left Kathy’s side, and their bond has grown strong. 

“I used to hesitate to go outside,” says Kathy. “When I’m outside, [Cassie] takes away the disability, in effect, because people are more curious about the dog than they are about me.”

CASSIE LISTENS INTENTLY FOR HER
NEXT COMMAND FROM KATHY KIMMEL

Cassie was raised and trained by Canine Partners for Life (CPL), a nonprofit organization that trains service dogs to assist people with a wide range of disabilities and home companion dogs to provide companionship and emotional support. Their offices are located on a sprawling 45-acre plot of land in Cochranville, PA. Three main buildings dot the landscape: the kennel that holds up to 30 service dogs in-training, the office building for a staff of 28, and the dog training facility inside an old barn that came with the property.

“It’s our job to take people who are often relying on society — they may be living off of disability, not working, not going to school — and turn them into people who can go to school, get a job, volunteer, pay taxes and make a difference,” says Darlene Sullivan, founder of CPL. “With a service dog, people can live feeling secure. They can feel confident and tackle life’s goals, and not let a disability completely dominate their lives.”

The Life of a Service Dog

Service dogs raised by Canine Partners for Life undergo two years of training before being matched. The dogs learn to pick up dropped objects, provide balance and momentum, assist with dressing and undressing, opening doors, turning on lights and much more. They are also desensitized to typical distractions like vacuum cleaners, cats and loud noises. Once dogs are matched with an applicant, they receive additional training to adapt to the specific needs of that person. A typical service dog works between eight and 10 years. When they retire, they are usually adopted as a pet by their human partner.

THIS 8-WEEK OLD GOLDEN RETRIEVER PUPPY
WILL ONE DAY BECOME A SERVICE DOG

All of CPL’s service dogs are trained to wear a harness in their second year of training. Cassie, Kathy Kimmel’s service dog, wears a harness that helps Kathy balance when walking. The harness weighs five pounds and was designed by CPL, which worked with an engineer, chiropractor and a veterinarian to design and build the harness. Cassie is in the harness for about 8 hours a day, so it’s almost like she works a 9-5 job. When her harness comes off, she becomes a regular, playful dog. She goes to dog parks and has friends in the neighborhood.

“[Cassie] gives me a sense of independence,” says Kathy. “She also gives my caregiver [husband, Robert] a break. He doesn’t worry about me being alone.”

Creating healthier relationships is a big part of what a service dog can do. “What happens when disability enters the family is all of the sudden, everything you do and all of your communication revolves around helping because of the disability,” says Darlene Sullivan, who has a service dog herself for her fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome. “Meaningful conversations that people normally have disappear because all of the conversation is about needing help and accommodating the disability. So if the dog can take some of that off, and some of the normalcy of a relationship can return, what an awesome gift that is.”

What To Do If You’re Thinking about Getting a Service Dog

If you are thinking about getting a service dog, Darlene urges you to go to an accredited service dog organization. Canine Partners for Life is accredited through Assistance Dogs International, a coalition of service dog providers that set the precedent for ethics and standards in the industry.

DARLENE SULLIVAN WITH TWO PUPPIES
IN TRAINING

“It may be a little more work to go to a quality organization,” she says. “But in the long run, it is definitely worth the effort.”

At CPL, once someone applies, their application gets circulated through the entire training staff. The person is then called for an interview so the staff can get to know them better. After the interview, the applicant is placed on a waiting list and will usually wait for one to two years before being matched. CPL accepts applicants from all over the country, and they have placed dogs in nearly every state. They currently have 15 dogs working with people living with MS in seven different states.

It costs about $30,000 to raise a service dog and provide lifetime support. However, the cost to an applicant is minimal. CPL suggests a donation of $1,000-3,000, but it is not required. They are able to offset the cost by fundraising.

CASSIE WAITS FOR HER
NEXT COMMAND

“We truly are a public charity,” says Darlene. “All of our funding is coming from individuals, corporations and foundations, with a heavy majority coming from individuals.”  

One mistake people make with service dogs is thinking “they aren’t disabled enough to get one,” says Darlene. She encourages everyone to think about getting a dog sooner rather than later. They can keep you healthier longer and really improve the quality of your life — not just physically but mentally.

Just be sure you’re ready, because “it’s a really big commitment,” Darlene says. “Having a service dog is kind of like being married to a two year old forever. Training lasts forever. It’s not a robot — it’s a dog.”

For more information on Canine Partners for Life, visit k94life.org

This article was originally published in the MS Connection Newsletter - 2015 Issue 2.

(Photos by Kerry McKenzie)

Master Page Does Not Exist
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