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Canine Companions for Independence is the oldest service dog company in the country.

Tricks are service

Dog aids partially paralyzed man with repertoire of 40 commands

Hawkeye can perform tasks such as flipping a light switch, tugging open a door and picking up a remote control.
A piece of art showing Hawkeye as a puppy hangs in the Robles’ home. The dog is now 2 years old.
Photos by Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
Denny Robles of Fort Wayne, who has been partially paralyzed since 1977, recently got his service dog, Hawkeye.

Denny Robles wants to show off the “tricks” his black lab, Hawkeye II, can perform. But it’s not “roll over” and “play dead.”

From his armchair, Robles picks up a remote control and tosses it in front of the dog, who is lying at Robles’ feet – the dog never leaves Robles’ side, his wife, Mary, says. Hawkeye watches the remote arc through the air and land near his head.

“Get,” Robles commands.

Hawkeye looks up at Robles from his perch with his eyes only. His head remains nestled on his paws.

“Get,” Robles repeats, and then a firmer, “Get.”

The dog may be nervous to perform in front of a stranger, but Hawkeye eventually gets up into a sitting position and begins to fiddle with the remote with his paws. As it pops up on its side, the dog gently grasps it with his mouth and hands it over to his owner.

The move takes a few seconds and seems so rote, it appears unimpressive. But because Robles is partially paralyzed, the dog’s handling of a remote, as well as other “fetching” abilities, becomes quite remarkable.

Hawkeye is a service dog who came to Denny and Mary Robles through Canine Companions for Independence. Headquartered in California, the company is the oldest in the country to breed and train dogs to help people with disabilities. Hawkeye has been with the family since November, the end of a process that started nearly two years ago.

Seeing a need

In 1977, Denny Robles, now 60, underwent surgery for a slipped disk in the back of his neck. Because of too much anesthesia, he was paralyzed from the neck down when he awoke.

Over the years, he has regained control of the left side of his body, but his right side remains largely paralyzed.

He seemed to cope with the disability well. He modified a vehicle so he could drive with his left foot and use a knob to steer. He’s able to open doors and get about.

The couple also moved from their Ossian home a few years ago to their current home in Fort Wayne, which does not have steps. But some recent falls that resulted in broken bones indicated that maybe Robles needed extra help.

A friend of Mary Robles told the couple about Canine Companions, and the couple looked into the program, which seemed as though it would be a perfect fit for Denny Robles.

The organization helps people with physical disabilities such as paralysis, cerebral palsy, spinal cord injuries and Down syndrome, says Ashley Koehler, development associate for Canine Companions’ north central region in Delaware, Ohio.

Robles had to complete five steps before the couple learned they’d been accepted; the waiting period can last up to two years, Mary Robles says.

When deciding who receives a service dog, Canine Companions considers whether the dog can be of use to the individual, Koehler says.

“They have to be able to utilize the physical tasks that we train the dogs (to do),” she says. “A primary (disability) we wouldn’t place for are (for example) post traumatic stress disorder or just a companion dog.”

The dogs learn to master about 40 commands during their training, Koehler says. All the dogs are trained to open doors, pull a manual wheelchair, pick up dropped items, turn on lights and other physical actions. If a person is physically well enough to do these tasks for himself, he would not receive a dog.

The dogs are bred in California and spend two years with trainers, Mary Robles says. When it’s time to pair the animal with an owner, the owner pays nothing – just travel or lodging fees. The program sustains itself on donations.

“They did tell us, by the time they’ve done all the breeding and the training that’s gone into the dogs, they’re valued at $40,000 to $45,000,” Mary Robles says.

A companion

Hawkeye, who turned 2 in November, will carry items for Denny Robles. Robles says Hawkeye has picked up items as large as a bottle of water or a can of pop.

He also goes out in public with his owner. At lunch, for example, Hawkeye is trained to go under the table during the meal. Should Denny Robles drop his napkin, Hawkeye will pick it up.

After meals, restaurant patrons have commented that they had no idea there had been a dog next to their table because he was so well behaved, Denny Robles says.

Robles talks about the tasks Hawkeye can perform, some that he doesn’t have problems doing himself right now.

“(Hawkeye) can turn on and off light switches and can pull stuff,” he says. “He can tug stuff, like tug a door open.”

The transition of welcoming Hawkeye into their home has been a relatively simple one, and Mary Robles points out the importance of the company Hawkeye provides.

“Denny spends most of the time alone, and Hawkeye has been a wonderful companion for him,” she says.

“Even though he’s lazy,” Denny Robles says with a grin, looking at his pet who is sprawled out at his feet, quiet and content.

jyouhana@jg.net

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