Swoosh. Swoosh. Swoosh.
(My wagging tail shows I love car rides. Where are we going?)
(Stop! There’s a squirrel!)
Sniff. Sniff. Sniff.
(I smell kibble. Gimme! Gimme!)
Pluto, Watson, Chuda and their five siblings are 6-month-old Golden Retrievers living the good life. Their few daily habits include barking, doing things for treats, being petted, napping and generally looking cute.
They seem like normal dogs, but this litter is on a special path.
In next two years, these Labs will be able to open and close doors, flip light switches, fetch glasses, medication and the TV remote, or seek help in a crisis. As part of the Helping Paws nonprofit in Hopkins, these eight puppies will become service dogs paired with disabled people in need of assistance—and a companion.
“We further the independence of individuals with physical disabilities with the use of service dogs,” says Pam Anderson, Helping Paws’ director of development. “A service dog becomes their best friend, their life line, in case they are in a situation where they need help.”
Training classes start at age two months, when dogs are paired with foster home trainers such as Plymouth residents Mark and Sarah Kipp and Mary Tiegen. After two years of intensive training, the dogs are delivered to a person with some physical disability or need; 150 dogs have been paired by Helping Paws in its 25-year history.
(When asked to kiss, I hop up and give a wet lick to my partner’s cheek.)
Chomp. Tap. Tap. Tap. Drop.
(When my partner drops something, I pick it up and bring it to him.)
(My panting breath shows I’m here and can do what my partner needs.)
That was Miles, a 7-year-old Golden Retriever/best friend to Jake Beckstrom. The 23-year-old Watertown man became a quadriplegic after a pool diving accident in 2005. He signed up for a service dog and sat, like everyone else, on Helping Paws’ waiting list for two years.
Once it was Beckstrom’s turn in line, the dogs kept him waiting even longer.
“It’s something that clicks,” Anderson says. “It’s like speed dating, but not quite as fast.”
The dogs pick the person, Anderson says. And after Beckstrom’s experience, he concurs.
“I met with eight dogs,” Beckstrom says. “Miles was the only dog that was connecting to me. I would tell other dogs to do something. They would barely listen to me or not even look at me at all.”
Now, Beckstrom and Miles are one of the 85 active pairs with Helping Paws. Miles joined him for his senior year of high school and went away to college with him. When Beckstrom would drop a pen while doing homework in his dorm room, Miles would pick it up. When Beckstrom needed to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, Miles would turn on the light. When Beckstrom had trouble making friends at Southwest Minnesota State, Miles broke the ice.
“There are intangible qualities of companionship,” Beckstrom says.
Beckstrom said other students were uncertain on how to approach him before Miles. After Miles, “I was the coolest kid in school,” Beckstrom says. He was voted college homecoming king “because of Miles,” Beckstrom says.
One time, Miles got Beckstrom and his buddy out of jam. After attending the PGA Championship golf tournament, Beckstrom’s friend was driving home when he stopped to get some fast food. On his way out, the friend accidentally locked the doors with Beckstrom and Miles inside. The van was running with the keys inside. After more than 20 minutes of testing exit strategies, Miles was able to unlock the doors.
“We were in sync and even though he wasn’t trained for it, we were able to work it out,” Beckstrom says.
(Pet me! I’m on my hind legs and pawing your jeans. Pet me!)
Oh, yes, behind my floppy ear. There goes my tail! That’s the spot! Whoa!)
Tap. Tap. Tap.
(What’s over there? I wanna smell it, but my leash won’t let me go. Pull!)
That’s Buffy, one of the adorable eight 3-month-old puppies before her weekly class at Helping Paws in March. Three months earlier, Eleise gave birth to Buffy and her brothers and sisters at the home of Susan Martiny in Eden Prairie.
“It was a very neat experience to get them started on the road to being service dogs,” Martiny says of her role as caretaker for the dogs’ first eight weeks.
The eight pups were big hits in Eden Prairie, bringing neighbors, friends, friends of friends and members of Martiny’s book club to the home to see the pups.
“They were hysterical to watch,” she says. “Every day, they are developing and learning to walk and play.”
(I’m just sitting here like a good 2-year-old puppy.)
Crunch. Crunch. Crunch.
(Got me some kibble for just sitting. I’m figuring out this service stuff!)
(Just sitting here again. “Go get help,” Mark Kipp says to me.)
Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap.
(I left Mark to find someone else in the house. I bark twice as instructed.)
That was Ripken, the service dog-in-training with Mark and Sarah Kipp of Plymouth.
The Kipp family, including daughters Mary and JoJo, has been working with Ripken on refining many service skills. They are practicing opening doors and going to get help in a crisis. Besides the weekly one-hour classes, there is an extra hour-per-day of homework.
As puppies, they won’t sit still during class in Helping Paws’ warehouse space. They much prefer playing with their siblings, barking, whining or tangling their leash around the legs of a chair. As near-graduates, the dogs sit attentively ready to open the doors and flip the light switches along one of the warehouse’s walls.
The training for near graduates also includes field trips to become acclimated to the real world. It could be taking them outside on Halloween to be with trick-or-treaters or on city streets to see people with different hairstyles such as balding man or a woman with long red hair. Helping Paws wants the dogs to be comfortable in all situations.
“They want us to have them able to problem solve,” Sarah Kipp says.
Mary Tiegen was a foster home trainer for Kaia, a graduate who has gone to help a woman in Hibbing.
“I got the opportunity to see Kaia and what she gets to do, and the connection with the person, so that was rewarding,” says Tiegen, who was cautious about becoming a trainer because of having to let go of the dog after the 2-plus years of training.
The dogs share those bonds. During the rare time when Beckstrom is in public without Miles, he’ll whimper and whimper at Beckstrom’s parents’ house.
“He can’t stand to be without me,” Beckstrom says. “He’s an old softie.”