MILTON, Ga. – Steven Harris sits in his motorized chair while his new service dog, Dalton, soaks his face with kisses.
“He’s a great dog,” Harris said. “I can’t believe how smart he is.”
Harris, 43, suffers from a rare neurological disorder, stiff-person syndrome (SPS).
The disorder restricts muscle ability in the trunk and limbs and can cause muscle spasms from stimuli such as noise, touch and emotional distress.
About one in a million people have SPS, with an estimated 300 diagnosed in the U.S.
“I have a little bit of mobility in my legs, but if I tilt slightly, I fall,” Harris said.
Harris also has a genetic, progressive and degenerative disease, Spinocerebellar ataxia (SCA), which impacts the brain and spinal cord and affects about 150,000 in the country.
“I was born with it, but it exploded five years ago,” he said.
SCA is terminal.
“My brain and spinal cord are dying,” Harris said. “I started out with a cane and then a walker, and now this.”
Harris maneuvers his electric scooter around the Canine Assistants’ classroom.
Dalton, a 3-year-old Golden Retriever trained to help Harris with daily tasks such as opening doors and item retrieval, sticks close to his side.
“He does things for me that are absolutely life essential, but it’s not really a job to him, it’s fun,” Harris said.
In January, Harris lost his wife to respiratory failure.
Harris has a 16-year-old son.
“I want to give him the best family life possible,” he said.
Dalton is trained to help. Milton-based Canine Assistants is one of three service dog training organizations in the U.S. Their dogs are in high demand.
“We breed our dogs,” Gary Arnold of Canine Assistants said. “We used rescue dogs, but found it was too hard to work with them.”
Arnold said rescue dogs have often suffered from abuse or other situations that can negatively impact their training.
“Shelter dogs are great dogs, but with service dogs, it’s all about trust,” he said, “and sometimes a shelter dog can’t get to the level of trust we need.”
Golden Retrievers, Labs and Golden Doodles are Canine Assistants’ breeds of choice.
“Obviously, we need dogs who are good at retrieving, and we do have a mix of our preferred breeds,” Arnold said, “but it’s also about the perceived personality of the breed.”
Shepherds are smart dogs, but their reputation makes it hard to use them as service dogs, he said.
Puppies begin training when they are 2 days old, continuing on until they’re ready — sometimes in one to three years.
“We start with a lot of touching,” Arnold said. “It’s about getting the dog used to human touch.”
Dalton and Harris spent several days working with trainers together. Dalton will help his master with everything from opening doors to fetching items and even calling for help should Harris need it.
“Each of our clients meets four or five dogs trained in their area of need,” Arnold said, “but really, the dogs pick their humans.”
For information on donating or volunteering with Canine Assistants, visit www.canineassistants.org.