Incredible Canines

By: Philip Stewart
By: Philip Stewart

July 23, 2006

Since Peggy Law founded Service Dogs of Virginia in 2000, she's placed numerous dogs with people with physical disabilities.

The dogs do everything from paying with credit cards at stores, to turning on and off light switches at home. Preparing the dogs for their service careers takes up to two and a half years of training.

"We train the dogs by adding distractions, so that if I hold the food out this way, I can say 'watch me,' and he's going to look at me instead of that pile of food," demonstrated Law at her office just off Rose Hill Drive in Charlottesville.

Law, the executive director and head trainer of the of the organization, uses a small clicker in her hand as part of the training. The dogs recognize the sound as a positive reinforcement, and it has been very successful..

"It's a way of communicating with a non-verbal species," said Law. "The dogs communicate with us. We communicate back."

Training and care is not cheap. It can cost up to $20,000 to train just one dog. But recently Service Dogs of Virginia received a grant from BAMA Works in Charlottesville.

"We do not charge our clients for a dog," said Law. "The dogs are given to the clients without charge, so the grant enables us to do this work and to be able to make those placements without charge."

The organization also needs puppy raisers. Laurie Luck was visiting Sunday afternoon from Maryland. She's raising her fourth dog.

"You have so much fun doing it for a year and a half, and it is really hard giving them up, but for a year and a half I have him 24 hours a day," said Luck.

For Law, this work lets her combine her love of training and do something very good for people who need the help.

"To see that match and to see people with their dog, and their dog can help them is so gratifying and so wonderful," said Law.

She says her next goal is to pair up dogs with autistic children. If you would like to learn more about Service Dogs of Virginia, including ways to volunteer or make a donation, you can visit www.servicedogsva.org.


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