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November 10, 2010

Good dogs! Summit Assistance Dogs is a heart-warming CFD choice

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Editor’s note: Through the 2010 Combined Fund Drive campaign, University Week will spotlight agencies that receive CFD funds and members of the UW community who volunteer for such organizations. The theme of this year’s drive is “Imagine the Difference We Can Make.”

Michelle Munro is not only president of the board of Summit Assistance Dogs of Anacortes — one of 2,800-some agencies that get support from the Combined Fund Drive — she’s also a contented client whose own assistance dog helped her rejoin the world after illness.

“He changed my life,” Munro said of Hayden, the shaggy “Labradoodle” who came her way through Summit after being donated by a dog breeder in Idaho. Hayden helps Munro with balance and mobility, coping with the effects of a rare autoimmune disease that struck her several years ago, and its after-effects.

“Doors were shutting on me left and right, but since I got him, those doors just opened back up,” she said.

Munro is one of scores of clients helped by Summit since its formation in 2000. She visited the UW for this year’s CFD Kickoff in October at Kane Hall. She said Summit Assistance Dogs does not train guide dogs, or service animals for those with vision impairment. “A guide dog would not be trained to do the things Hayden is doing.”

Rather, the Summit website says, its dogs are trained to perform tasks “that otherwise would require a human caregiver. Among the many tasks these dogs can perform are opening and closing doors, picking up dropped items, retrieving an emergency telephone, helping take clothes off and alerting a person who is hard of hearing to important sounds like a smoke alarm, a phone ringing or a child crying.”

Many Summit dogs are trained to be balance and mobility dogs, Munro said: “They can help people with balance problems and people who use wheelchairs to open doors, push elevator buttons, turn on and off lights, as well as many other tasks.” The dogs are also trusted companions and friends ever-ready to offer unconditional love. Some are trained and assigned as “therapy dogs,” such as Marley, a yellow lab now on the job brightening the lives of folks in a Yakima, Wash., long-term care facility.

Munro said donations to Summit Assistance Dogs will go to help with the organization’s many programs, one of which takes place at the men’s correctional facility in Monroe, Wash. There, dogs rescued from shelters are trained to be helpers by carefully selected teams of inmates. Summit pays shelter fees, food and veterinarian care for the animals.

Only two or three of every 10 dogs in training make good assistance dogs. But be assured that the rest aren’t cast aside — “We don’t return any dogs to the shelter,” Munro said. “We make sure all of the dogs have homes.”

Some people wait years to be matched with a dog, while for others it may be only a matter of months. “Placements are not on a first-come, first-served basis, but rather on the appropriate match of skills and temperament,” the website states.

Munro said the dogs, including Hayden, are trained to “problem-solve.” It might be hard to believe but it’s true, she said. Munro says that one time, when she had fallen and needed help, the dog brought her the phone. But when Hayden saw she could not use the phone, he took additional action: “He went in the back yard and howled until a neighbor heard. She has a key, and came to help me.”

She said that by the time Summit’s dogs are fully trained they know about 60 commands. Summit stays in touch with dogs and their owners, and they will retrain the dog if an owner’s needs change.

Munro said, “I’m the board president, and I just can’t sing their praises enough.”

You can learn more about Summit Assistance Dogs at the organization’s website. And if you want happiness in a single mouse-click, just visit their page of Graduate Pairs, with photos and stories of happily matched dogs and their masters and mistresses. Find that guaranteed tail-wagger here.

You can learn more about the Combined Fund Drive and the agencies it supports — and sign up to donate — online at the CFD Website.