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March 31, 2010

Service dog provides independence for owner at SRU

Process to get dog took several years

SLIPPERY ROCK — Josie is not your usual welcoming committee in a university office. But in the financial aid office at Slippery Rock University, the yellow lab is part of the staff.

Josie's owner, Patty Hladio, has muscular dystrophy - a progressive disease - and uses a motorized scooter to get around. A number of years ago, a friend suggested that she look into what it took to get a service dog.

"I did a lot of research about organizations that train and provide service dogs," Hladio said. "One of the coaches here suggested Paws with a Cause."

Hladio, director of financial aid at SRU, researched Paws With A Cause. She didn't think she really needed the dog when she first applied but didn't know what the future would hold, as her disease might progress.

The process of obtaining the dog was lengthy and very detailed. Hladio had to fill out a detailed application describing her situation, and provide medical references. From beginning the process to being certified took about three years.

She completed her application in October 2005. Then Paws with a Cause followed up with a phone interview and on-site interviews.

"They wanted my height and weight so that the dog would be the right size to be able to help me," she said.

The organization assessed Hladio's physical needs and the home environment to be sure that it was a safe place for the dog.

"It was about two and a half years before I got a call saying that they might have a dog that would meet my needs," she said. "They wouldn't tell me anything about the dog so I wouldn't get my hopes up. They usually use labs or standard poodles. I just could see myself with a poodle - I'm not a poodle type of person."

As she communicated with Paws with a Cause, she told them that she wouldn't be too disappointed if she couldn't get the dog during the summer months because that is a very busy time in the student aid office.

She then got the word: Josie arrived the first week of school in 2008 Ð probably the busiest time in the office," she said.

The local contact is in Hermitage. There were three other dogs brought to the area at the same time as Josie.

Interestingly, "All the dogs were going to places of education," Hladio said.

Hladio and Josie began six months of training, meeting with a trainer every Thursday for two months.

"They were teaching me the commands that Josie already knew,"she said. They would practice and the next week they would show the trainer what they had learned, and learned some new things to practice.

Then the trainer came twice a month for two additional months, so the trainer could evaluate Hladio and Josie as a team.

"Then the trainer came six months later to evaluate us," Hladio said. "Our reports were reviewed by a panel. We passed and were certified. Josie is now mine."

They received their certification in March 2009.

"Josie loves to work," Hladio said. "When she is doing tasks, she puts on her ‘work face."If I am more relaxed, she is, too. The dogs follow the lead of their owners.

"We practice her tasks (often). The thing that is most helpful is picking up things off the floor. She also turns the lights on. I have a special phone and she can get it and bring it back to me. If my foot slips off my scooter, Josie can lift it up and put it back on the scooter."

Hladio says that she enjoys having the companionship of the dog and she feels more secure with the Josie there.

In August 2009, Hladio received a book with pictures and stories about Josie's first year. The woman who had cared for and trained her as a puppy had sent it to her.

"We have e-mailed several times since. The book is very special."

"Several days a week I have a student take her for a long walk in the middle of the day,"Hladio said. "We walk before and after work."

In the corner of Hladio's office is a very big soft bed for Josie.

Paws with a Cause trains assistance dogs nationally for people with disabilities and provides lifetime team support which encourages independence. It also promotes awareness through education.   

To learn more about Paws with a Cause, visit www.pawswithacause.org.

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