NAPERVILLE, Ill. — While the Straka family chats around the kitchen table, its 5-year-old German shepherd, Essie, relaxes in her corner doggy bed. Life is good.
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Then, without a sound, Essie stands, her eyes fixed on Ella Straka, 64. Essie is one step ahead of Straka, still seated but about to cross the room to the coffee pot. As her service dog, Essie knows Straka, a retired nurse who has multiple sclerosis, might need help.
“She’s never off-duty,” said Straka, whose Naperville, Ill., family also includes her husband, Steve; their five grown children; a border collie named Hermione, and three cats.
Essie’s trainer, Jack Giambrone of Elmwood Park, Ill.-based Barking Angels Service Dog Foundation, said he knew she would be ideal for Straka because “they’re both easygoing. And Essie’s so nonchalant with other dogs, I thought she’d get along with Hermione.”
Essie is one of 78 service dogs Giambrone has trained, after adopting them for his clients (called “handlers”) from shelters. “I’ve worked with dogs all my life, so I know when I meet one if he’ll work,” he said. “He’s friendly but not crazy, makes eye contact and isn’t fearful.”
Personality trumps breed, said Giambrone, and must match the job. “A very affectionate dog may work for a child with Down syndrome, but constant kissing may annoy an adult with anxiety,” he said.
Training Essie was “as much for me as for her,” said Straka. Giambrone taught Essie commands while she bonded with Straka.
A service-dog trainer works with the handler throughout the dog’s lifetime, adding skills as needed. “One girl needed her dog to learn what to do when they were in driver’s ed,” said Giambrone. “Then, he had to learn how to help her at college.”
No one keeps a national service-dog count, but the number grows as awareness increases, said spokespeople from leading national organizations, Wayland, Mich.-based Paws with a Cause and Santa Rosa, Calif.-based Canine Companions for Independence.
Giambrone said it costs about $1,200 to $2,500 for a service dog, depending on how much training it needs. Sometimes a church or service club helps pay.
The Americans with Disabilities Act defines “service dog,” but trainers issue their certifications and IDs.
Service dogs work one-on-one with their handlers, guiding deaf or blind people, helping those in wheelchairs navigate, predicting seizures or telling diabetic people if they need insulin.
“Working dog” is an umbrella term that includes services dogs, police dogs and dogs who help the community by, for example, finding cadavers, lost people or bombs, or by providing therapy at hospitals or in courtrooms.
By law, a service dog can go wherever the public is allowed. Essie has never been denied access, said Straka.
“The ADA says it’s legal to ask, ‘Is that a service dog?’ or ‘What’s that dog trained to do?’ but you can’t ask about the person or her disabilities,” Straka said. “It’s confusing, so people just don’t ask.”
Today is a good day for Straka and Essie because they were out of bed by 8 a.m. “Some days, I don’t feel that well, so Essie adapts,” said Straka, whose symptoms include fatigue, muscle weakness and numb hands and feet.
When Straka needs help getting up from a chair, she bear-hugs Essie, who pulls her up and forward. “I saw Jack demonstrate that at an expo and I was sold,” Straka recalled. “Before that, I didn’t realize how service dogs could help people with MS.”
When Straka feels up to it, she and Essie run errands in the “C-A-R,” she said. “Because of Hermione, we spell a lot of words.”
Straka uses a cane or her battery-operated scooter at stores, while Essie follows. “She figured out how to stay behind me in narrow aisles,” said Straka.
Local merchants love Essie, said Straka. “Once, she had to stay home because she had a stomachache, and everyone asked if she was OK,” she said.
Once a month, Straka and Essie join Giambrone and some of his other clients at an area mall. “Then, the dogs can get used to elevators, crowds, noise,” said Straka.
Essie doesn’t mind being stared at by strangers, said Straka, “but some dogs have to learn to tolerate that.” While the other dogs feared Santa Claus last year, Essie had her picture taken with him.
Essie’s job, said Straka, includes being a service-dog ambassador.
“When you see a service dog, ask if you can pet her,” said Giambrone. “Usually, she’s working and you shouldn’t. But sometimes it’s part of her job to be an icebreaker. A mentally disabled child (handler), for example, might not meet people otherwise.”
Before the Strakas go out to dinner, Straka calls ahead to request a table. “With a booth, there might not be a place for Essie to sit underneath, so she lays low on the seat next to me,” said Straka. “No one knows she’s there until we leave.”
Twice since joining Straka, Essie has flown with her to Dallas to visit friends. Straka reserves a bulkhead seat so Essie can sit on the floor next to her.
After befriending their Dallas friends’ dogs, Essie got a surprise. “They ran out the back door and Essie ran right into their pool,” said Straka. “She was in over her head, which she did not like.”
Essie’s day includes a walk with Hermione and either Steve or Straka’s daughter, Anastasia.
When it’s bedtime, Straka puts one hand on the stair rail and one on Essie. “She gives me enough stability to get upstairs,” said Straka.
If Essie could describe her perfect day, said Straka, “it would be ‘shop, nap, walk.’” Or, she might tally her daily shoe count. “The most mischievous thing she does is put our shoes in her bed,” said Straka. “Once, she had so many in there, she couldn’t lie down.”
This year, the Strakas plan to move to a smaller house in Florida. “For me, it’ll have no stairs,” said Straka. “For Essie, it’ll have no backyard ponds with alligators. And no pool.”
When Essie can no longer work, she’ll become the Strakas’ pet and a younger service dog will join the family. Meantime, said Straka, “I depend on her and she depends on me. That’s a good feeling.”
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