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Published March 28, 2011, 12:00 AM

Service dog gave woman independence

Alexandria woman with spinal muscular atrophy had Iken by her side helping her with daily tasks for six years
DeAnn Runge of Alexandria, Minn., was a senior in high school when she set her sights on getting a dog. She was looking for more than just companionship – she was seeking greater independence.

By: Tara Bitzan, Forum Communications Co., INFORUM

DeAnn Runge of Alexandria, Minn., was a senior in high school when she set her sights on getting a dog. She was looking for more than just companionship – she was seeking greater independence.

Runge suffers from spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), a genetic disease that causes progressive muscle degeneration and weakness.

There are varying degrees of SMA, and Runge says she’s “in the middle” of the spectrum. She has never been able to walk and has limited upper-body strength.

She was watching a “Dateline” TV special about a girl with SMA who was aided in her daily tasks by a service dog.

“Instantly, I knew having a service dog would change my life,” said Runge, a 1998 Jefferson High School graduate.

She began researching organizations that provide dogs to people with her type of disability and applied.

She and her family traveled to Canine Companions for Independence in Ohio, where she underwent an interview to see if she was a fit for the program. She also saw a service dog in action.

She was accepted into the program and placed on a waiting list until a dog became available for her. That wait took much longer than she had hoped.

In the meantime, she focused on her studies at Southwest State University in Marshall, graduating in 2003 with a degree in business administration. She now works for Lake Region Eye Center in Alexandria.

A match is made

Five years after being put on the waiting list, Runge received the call that she would be matched with a dog.

She returned to Ohio to attend a two-week training program along with five others hoping to be matched with dogs.

“It was an experience I’ll never forget,” she said. “They rotated eight dogs between us to see how we connected. They don’t want you to have your eye on a certain dog, but of course you do.”

Runge’s eyes kept turning to a black Lab/retriever cross named Iken.

On the third day of training, the dogs are assigned and spend the remainder of the time working directly with their new handler. Runge and Iken were the first two paired.

An inseparable team

In November 2004, Runge returned home to Alexandria with her new roommate, and the two were together from that day on.

When he was “on duty,” Iken was at Runge’s beck and call. He turned lights on and off with his nose, pulled or pushed doors open, put items in the garbage, took money from her hand and gave it to bank tellers or store clerks if the counter was too high, etc.

One of his most important duties was to pick up items that Runge dropped. He could pick up things as small as a penny.

“The dogs are trained to not pick something up unless they are told to,” she said. “When I would drop something, Iken would look at me waiting for the command.”

“Some of those things might seem minor,” Runge said of Iken’s tasks, “but to a person with a disability, they can be huge. I no longer had to wonder when someone would stop by to pick up the important document that I dropped, or if the light would be on all day.

“I could put away my snack in the fridge without fumbling, trying not to drop it while I opened the door. Iken could open the door and hold it open for me.

“When I went downtown, I had the sense of security a dog provides, and I didn’t have to worry about dropping something on the sidewalk because Iken was there.”

Iken was public access certified, which meant he could accompany Runge into public places. Service dogs are trained to not react to other animals or people, and Runge noted Iken was always well behaved.

“I was more leery of other people’s dogs, but nothing ever happened,” Runge said. “I had more problems with people wanting to pet him.

“Service dogs are not supposed to get outside attention so that they keep their focus on us and what we need them to do,” she explained. “I’d have to ask people not to pet him; some got offended by that. My family (members) were the worst offenders.”

Iken’s time with Runge wasn’t all work. Service dogs are trained to be focused and engaged when working, but they do get time off. When Runge would say “release,” Iken knew he was off duty.

The end of a partnership

Iken gave Runge the independence she was looking for.

Sadly, the partnership only lasted six years. In September 2010, Iken was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer. He died in November.

“Six years almost to the day that I received that precious gift, he was taken away,” Runge said. “He was with me every single day. It was a hard loss.

“Although Iken can never be replaced,” she added, “I know another dog would be able to step up to do the things I need them to, and would also become a cherished member of my family as Iken was.”

Runge was added to the waiting list at three different organizations – Canine Companions, Helping Paws and Can Do Canines.

With an anticipated wait of one to two years, Runge focused on readjusting to life without her helper.

“For six years, I never used a reacher or a tool,” she said. “I had to buy a grabber and now have to be more careful not to drop things.

“I did it before, so I can do it again, but Iken definitely made my life a lot easier.”

She also focused on raising money and finding sponsorships to help fund another training trip.

“Even though the dogs are free to us, we still have to pay our expenses – travel, two weeks there for training, and so on,” she said. “Even just that gets expensive.”

Last week she learned that she didn’t have much time to raise the money. Runge was notified – much earlier than expected – that she was accepted to a May training event at Canine Companions, and is planning a return trip to Ohio.

While the pain of losing Iken is still fresh, she is excited to meet the dog that will hopefully become her new helper, roommate and friend.

A great need

There are many reasons why it takes so long to be matched with a service dog.

Due to increased education and promotion, more people than ever are applying for service dogs and demand is much greater than the supply of trained dogs.

It takes a long time to raise and train a service dog. Many of the programs breed their own dogs, then send them to “puppy raising” volunteers. At about 15 months of age, they undergo a six- to nine-month training session.

Anytime during this process, a dog can be released from the program due to health or temperament issues.

Once a dog completes the necessary training and has been deemed suitable, it is matched with someone on the waiting list.

The final roadblock is funding. According to Runge, it takes about $10,000 to put a dog through the program. Because service dogs are typically offered free to those needing them, the programs rely largely on donations.

For more information on the programs Runge is working with, visit these websites: www.caninecompanions.org; www.helpingpaws.org; www.can-do-canines.org.


Tara Bitzan writes for the Alexandria Echo Press

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