June 22nd, 2016
The woman sitting in the motorized wheelchair drops her cell phone on the floor, to the side of the wheelchair. Nani, the yellow Labrador at her feet picks it up, walks around to the front of the chair, steps up onto the footrest, and places the phone back on the woman's lap.
The woman's left arm falls off the armrest. Nani puts her snout under the arm and places it back on the armrest.
Then, the woman clicks her tongue, making a sound like a gecko. The dog's ears prick up and it starts barking, louder and louder, until she gets a command to stop.
The woman is trainer Vanessa Vezuete at Assistance Dogs of Maui, and Nani is being readied for a life of service with a woman with ALS, a progressive neurodegenerative disease.
"Nani can save her owner's life," Vezuete says of the barking command. "If this client's breathing tube falls out, the only sound she can make is clicking. Nani is trained to bark until her husband comes in the room."
Each year, Assistance Dogs of Maui places eight to ten service dogs with owners around the state. This training is intensive; the puppies start training at two weeks old. It will take the dog 12 to 18 months to learn 90 basic commands (like turning on the light and opening the door) before being matched with a specific client.
"We spend significant time matching the animal to the person. We consider the person's gender, age, and how fast they walk," details Vezuete. "It's important to get it right because the owner so heavily relies on his or her dog for independence, convenience, and sometimes, survival."
After the dog and person are matched, more training takes place to customize the dog's skill set - as illustrated in the above example of Nani's preparation to live with an ALS patient.
With all this time and care dedicated to training a guide dog, many are surprised to hear that Assistance Dogs of Maui doesn't charge for the dog. It estimates the value of the dog at $25,000.
Assistance Dogs of Hawaii has been helping people unleash their abilities since 2000, when Will and Maureen "Mo" Maurer founded the non-profit. It's known across the state - and actually, the world - for providing service dogs to children and adults, particularly for people with physical disabilities.
It's located on three acres in Kula, Maui. Mo is a whirlwind of energy, always pushing forward to see how she can make a difference in people's lives. In the last half of this year, she reveals, the program will be expanding to the Pacific Northwest: Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.
Furthermore, Assistance Dogs of Hawaii is working with the Rehabilitation Hospital of the Pacific on a groundbreaking study involving medical scent detection dogs. "Our dogs have been taught to detect the early stages of melanoma with extremely high accuracy," previews Mo. She tells me they're also working with Kapiolani Medical Center for Women & Children to train dogs to detect bacterial infections.
Just last month, many statewide news outlets including KHON2 shared the news of Ollie, a courthouse dog who joined the Kauai Office of the Prosecuting Attorney with Deputy Prosecutor Joanne Sheng as his handler. The Labrador Retriever provides emotional support for victims and witnesses in the courtroom. Ollie can offer support by resting his head on a person’s lap and putting his paw on their leg.