At your service: One smart, sturdy, black dog

JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald

Noah Hotchkiss, 14, makes his way though Animas High School with his new service dog, Brighton, who can open doors and pick things off the floor for Noah.

Noah Hotchkiss drops a pencil from his wheelchair onto the hard floor and tells Brighton to “take it.”

The stocky black Labrador retriever mix heads directly to the pencil and takes it in his mouth.

“Give,” Noah says, and without hesitation Brighton brings it within easy reach.

“The only bad part,” Noah says as he wipes the pencil with his shirt, “is all the slobber.”

It’s the start of a beautiful relationship. That’s the hope anyway. Noah suffered paralysis in his legs during an auto accident in 2009, and the dog is now part of his support team.

Brighton is a gift from Freedom Service Dogs, a Denver-based nonprofit formed in 1987 to help those with disabilities, including war veterans. After nearly a year of training, Brighton is ready to serve his client.

“He gets so excited when you give him commands,” says his trainer of seven months, Brianne Corbett of Denver, who was in Durango last week to help Brighton – and Noah – make the transition.

Brighton is an elite dog, the cream of the cream that are culled during training. Young dogs are X-rayed for joint issues, tested, evaluated and trained. If the dogs spook easily, are too interested in chasing squirrels or don’t like the work, they’re taken out of the training program and put up for adoption.

You’re a 14-year-old freshman at Animas High School, how cool is this? Your dog hands you pencils or shoes that you drop. Your dog can open doors for you. Your dog can turn lights on and off. Your dog can dash to the refrigerator, open it and grab water or medications. Or a Coke.

“Coke is medication,” Noah jokingly argues.

The main purpose, of course, is for Brighton to help Noah with everyday tasks. Who knows what Noah will eventually teach Brighton to do, but the 2-year-old dog is obviously bright and off to a good start.

Brighton actually started life at a dog shelter, Corbett explains at Animas High, where she’s hanging out with Noah and Brighton to get the dog accustomed to the schoolroom.

Freedom gets all its dogs from shelters, and waits to train them until they turn 1 year old. Many of the dogs, including Brighton, then go to state prisons, where inmates teach them basic commands. They return to Freedom Service Dogs. For the last six months, Corbett has worked with Brighton on tasks more specific to special needs – turning lights on and off, opening front-loading laundry machines and pulling out clothes. The dog does have limits, however.

“He can’t fold clothes,” Corbett says.

The transition period from agency to owner lasts about three weeks.

“Now it’s the process of getting the dog to do things for the client,” Corbett says. “The dogs know everything, but the client has to get them to do it.”

Noah takes Brighton’s leash and drops it to the floor. The dog retrieves the leash and places it back in Noah’s hand. (If you have a dog, you witness this with more than a bit of envy.)

The sturdy Brighton also can pull Noah uphill and serve as a brace. The dog stands squarely so Noah can use him to transfer in and out of bed to his chair.

Noah is fairly self-reliant, but his father, Jason Hotchkiss, heard from others in wheelchairs how much more independence they gained with a service dog. They’re also expensive, running tens of thousands of dollars. A Google search took him to Freedom Service Dogs, a nonprofit that gives away dogs for those who meet their criteria. In the fall, after an interview, Noah was put on what they were told was an 18- to 24-month waiting list.

Jason Hotchkiss was ecstatic when he got the call in January that Freedom had found a dog it felt matched Noah.

Earlier this month, Jason and Noah went to Denver to begin an extensive training program along with five other owners-to-be. Brighton was very attached to Corbett, and kept tugging Noah back toward her.

“The first week of class is really rough,” Corbett says. “The dog is confused in the beginning.”

For the first 30 days with the new owner, it’s best to limit interactions with others, Corbett says. Noah’s father and siblings have to be careful to not let Brighton become too attached to them. The school situation is particularly tricky. Noah’s classmates are told to not fuss over Brighton – not an easy thing for a teenager to do.

Progress is apparent in Brighton’s disposition when Noah isn’t around.

“Now it’s funny how attached he is to Noah,” Jason Hotchkiss says. “Brighton mopes until I bring him over to school.

“He’s just such a cool dog. It’s amazing.”

Service dogs are covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which means Brighton has full public access, Corbett explains. That includes movies, shopping malls, restaurants – even airplanes.

Just when you start thinking Brighton is perfect, Corbett doses you with reality. He eats poop, for instance.

“You can’t take the dog out of the service dog,” she’ll tell you. “We can’t always predict everything.”

johnp@durangoherald.com

John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.

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