McFeely: For West Fargo family, getting service dog is 'life-changing event'

FARGO-Duke the golden retriever stretched out on the floor of Babb's Coffee House this week, raising his head only when a barista fired up the coffee grinder to make a customer a fresh cup. He didn't seem to care when people walked past or when h...
Michael and Ruth Wirtz of West Fargo say acquiring service dog Duke is a "life-changing event" for their family, because it will allow their autistic daughter Lucy to live a more normal life. Photo by Mike McFeely/The Forum
Michael and Ruth Wirtz of West Fargo say acquiring service dog Duke is a "life-changing event" for their family, because it will allow their autistic daughter Lucy to live a more normal life. Photo by Mike McFeely/The Forum

FARGO-Duke the golden retriever stretched out on the floor of Babb's Coffee House this week, raising his head only when a barista fired up the coffee grinder to make a customer a fresh cup. He didn't seem to care when people walked past or when his new family members chatted about him to a visitor seated nearby.

You'd never know this unassuming pooch is charged with completely changing the life of the Wirtz family of West Fargo.

"Actually, it's changed already," said Michael Wirtz. "The instant he climbed over the back seat of our Yukon to be next to Lucy, it changed. I just about broke down right there. It almost brought tears to my eyes. I was very emotional. It was a life-changing event."

More on that in a moment.

Lucy is the 4-year-old daughter of Michael and Ruth Wirtz. She has autism. Among Lucy's biggest issues is the inability to handle crowds, and the bustle and noise that go with them. This severely limits what the Wirtzes, including daughters Lillian, 9, and Eliza, 2, can do as a family. A trip to Target, for example, just doesn't work for Lucy. Nor do meals at restaurants or many other activities most families take for granted.

That's why the Wirtzes wanted a service dog and why they raised about $26,000 last spring to acquire one from Service Dogs by Warren Retrievers, an organization out of Madison, Va. SDWR is not without controversy. There have been a number of complaints filed against it in Virginia, mostly dealing with the quality of dogs and the training it provides. The Wirtzes knew this, but went forward with acquiring a dog after talking with a high school classmate of Ruth's who had success with SDWR.

"When it comes to children with autism, the dog can redirect, calm and give some confidence," said Erin Gray, a SDWR trainer who traveled here to help the Wirtz family get acclimated to Duke and to educate them on training. "The dog is there, in a sense, to say, 'Everything is OK, we got this, it's going to be all right.' "

Duke turns a year old Saturday, Oct. 1, and, until this week, was known as Toby. But the Wirtz family already has a 13½-year-old cocker spaniel named Toby, so the new dog got a new name. Duke's been in training since he was 7 weeks old, Gray said.

Michael and Ruth hope to use the dog in a number of ways with Lucy-to calm her when needed, to keep her from wandering too far from their yard and perhaps even to stop her from banging her head against the floor or a wall when she gets particularly agitated. These are all important concerns.

But they also, frankly, just want to be able to have a more "normal" family life. The laid-back golden retriever lying on a rug in Babb's could provide that.

"We want to be able to take him when we go places," Ruth said. "We want to be able to go out in public as a family. We want to be able to go to a restaurant as a family. We want to be able to go to church as a family. That would be my definition of normal."

That's perhaps why Michael became so emotional when Duke climbed over the back seat to be near Lucy the first time the dog rode in the family vehicle.

"We had Lucy in her car seat and she was getting fussy and making some noises and Duke climbed over that seat to be near her," Michael said. "I believe he just knew that was his girl. It was the first time they'd met and he heard her crying and somehow knew that was his girl."

Michael and Ruth said the dog sought out Lucy at home later that night, too.

"I've been having anxiety about this for a couple of months. Should we be doing this? Did we make the right decision? Is this going to work?" Michael said. "When he crawled over the seat, all that anxiety went away. I knew we did the right thing."

It is a lot of responsibility being put on the gentle creature wearing the service vest at Babb's. Judging by Duke's demeanor, it doesn't seem like it will faze him.