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Super dogs
By Julie Bonner Williams and Marty Primeau
Photography by Johnny Quirin

We all love our dogs, no matter what breed, size or
temperament. And most dog owners truly believe their furry friends are special. But there are some remarkable canines that deserve recognition — dogs who are trained to do amazing things.

Here are just a few.

Paws With a Cause
“I’ll be the one with the dog,” Lynn Kraker said, letting me know how to identify her in a crowded restaurant.

The black Labrador retriever, Caddy, is a Paws With a Cause dog and Kraker’s service dog. He is with his owner 24 hours a day, every day, helping her with her balance, carrying things, retrieving dropped items and other services.

“Watch this,” Kraker said, tossing a credit card on the floor next to the booth. Caddy rose to standing position, extended a paw, pulled the card to him, picked it up in his teeth and delivered it to Kraker.

Next she tossed a dime on the floor. Caddy retrieved that, too. Showing he can also retrieve larger items, she dropped her cell phone on the floor, and Caddy gingerly took the edges in his mouth, carried it to her and set it next to her.

He can carry bags and other items weighing up to five pounds and is being trained to pull a basket of laundry to the laundry room.

Kraker, who had the polio virus when she was 2 years old, now deals with post-polio issues such as lack of core strength — she notes she can’t do a sit-up or pull herself up from the floor — as well as balance issues and not being able to carry things.
She’d seen Paws With a Cause representatives at a local home show and read some of the literature, later deciding she wasn’t in need of a service dog.

That changed one day when she fell at home.


Lynn Kraker and Caddy

“My balance is off, so I use my arms for balance. When I fell, I fell with my arm tucked. I dislocated my artificial hip. Where I fell, I was just this far away (beyond the reach of her fingertips) from the table where my cell phone was. I was like, ‘Hey, a dog could get a phone,’ and so I applied.”

Seven months after applying, Kraker received a phone call about her application, followed by a thorough home visit. She compares the process to what is required when adopting a child. A few months later, she received a call saying a dog was available that may be right for her needs.

Paws With a Cause dogs are specifically selected and trained to accommodate each client’s needs because those needs vary. And since a client’s needs can change over time, Kraker says Caddy’s ongoing training includes skills she doesn’t need at this point but may need in the future.

“He’s amazing every day because he makes my world work more smoothly. Things that people don’t think about — people don’t think about ‘Can I get up from a chair?’ They don’t think about the possibility of falling and doing damage and being stuck somewhere. They don’t think about being in the snow in a Michigan winter and they’ve dropped their keys and can’t retrieve them. You don’t think about those things that are so automatic,” she says.

“The dog can help,” said Kraker, identifying the greatest benefits of having Caddy with her as “the dignity it restores, the empowerment, the independence.”

Competitive pups
The image is breathtaking.

A 48-pound Labrador retriever soars 22 feet through the air, eyes fixed on a bumper toy suspended over a 45-foot-long pool.
Before landing in the water, 2-year-old Ice successfully knocks the bumper off its perch, a performance that earned second place in the Purina Pro Plan Incredible Dog Challenge’s Fetch-It competition in Boston earlier this year.

The Grand Rapids’ lab also placed fifth in the Diving Dog competition.

Owners Brian L. Butler and son Brian T. Butler are pleased Ice did so well, but say canine Olympic-style events aren’t just about winning.

“We don’t force our dogs to do this,” said Brian L. “They love it. They love to run and jump and get their toy.”

The Butler family’s interest in canine competitions started about 10 years ago. While attending a sport and RV show in Grand Rapids, Brian’s daughter was intrigued by a dog competition and asked if their lab, Sky, could do those tricks.

“I said, ‘I figure she can.’ So Lisa signed her up, and Sky competed the following year,” Brian L. said. “We’ve been hooked ever since.”

Sky, Ice’s mom, won 24 competitions and still competes in a few events, but these days Ice gets most of the training and attention.

The Butlers travel around the country, competing in about 25 events each year.

For Brian T., it’s also a business. He works for Ultimate Air Dogs, a dock jumping organization that sponsors events at sporting shows. The company teamed up with Purina to help round up participants for the Incredible Dog Challenge.

But it takes a special dog — and a lot of training — to be among the top contenders.

“You can tell from the time they are puppies,’ said Brian T. “They’re the ones who do a lot of exploring and are first to be independent.”

In July, the Butlers were in Boston for the eastern regionals of the dog challenge with such events as Fetch It and Diving Dog.

Fetch It requires dogs to jump off a dock to reach a bumper toy. In each round, the toy is placed farther away, and the dog who jumps the farthest is the winner.

Diving Dog requires the pups to run down a dock and into a 45-foot-long pool. “They measure how far from the end of the dock to where his nose goes in the water.”

At 8 months old, Ice could jump 26 feet.

The dogs exercise three to five days a week wherever there’s enough open space to play Frisbee. “And we do a lot of weight work to build muscle.”

When the dogs are in competitive mode, they focus all their attention on the task at hand. But when it’s over —“Ice is just a big, happy puppy who loves to have his tummy scratched.”

Bred for success
Laura Caprara adopted her first Bernese mountain dog 16 years ago.

“We were last on a waiting list to get a puppy,” she says.

The dog’s owner was Randy Carpenter, a local veterinarian and breeder, who requested that anyone adopting the purebred puppies show the dogs in the prestigious events sponsored by the American Kennel Club.

“At the time I had no interest in showing,” Caprara said. “But Randy and his son would take Spencer off to show him.”

Curious to see how her pup would perform in a competition, she drove to a show in Detroit and was pleased when Spencer did well. As he earned AKC championship status, Caprara became intrigued by the sport and continued to show him. She started working with other breeders and learned more about the art of judging pedigreed dogs.

“The second dog I had, Elwood, came from a friend and went on to do a lot of winning.”

Laura Caprara and Luther

Elwood, also a Bernese, competed in 2005 at Westminster, the elite AKC dog show in New York City featuring the nation’s top canines. He won Best of Breed and competed the following year.

“It was my first time to Westminster and New York City,” she said. “I’ve only missed a couple of Westminster shows ever since.”
And there were other Bernese champs, like Oscar and Butterfree, who took top honors at Specialty shows, events limited to a single breed.

“I can’t remember how many dogs they beat,” Caprara said. “But it was a lot!”
At one time, she owned (“at least”) seven Bernese mountain dogs — each weighing more than 100 pounds — and showed most of them.

“I really got into it,” Caprara says. “At the time, I didn’t have kids. I was traveling every weekend to dog shows in Detroit, Ohio and Pennsylvania. I drove a lot of miles, staying in cheap hotels that accepted dogs and cleaning up a lot of poop.”

As she became immersed in the show world, she bred dogs, assisted a handler at Westminster, and used her skills as a graphic designer to create ads for other dog owners.

“I had one client who spent $150,000 on her dog to keep her No. 1 ranking — going to the right shows, finding the right judges.”

Eventually, Caprara says she began to see a darker aspect of dog competitions.

“Westminster is supposed to be fun and all about improving the breed,” she said. “But there’s a whole other side because people take it so seriously. It became a source of stress.”

She says the 2000 comedy “Best in Show,” a movie that follows five entrants in a dog show and focuses on the slightly surreal interactions among owners and handlers, is “dead on.”

Today, Caprara and her two sons have two Bernese as family pets. She still goes to Westminster as a member of the media, observing all the activity without getting immersed in the drama.

“It’s still fun because I follow what’s going on.”

Search and rescue dogs
Kate Dernocoeur’s history with German shepherds is more than sheer luck, even if it did begin that way.

As owner and handler of Mayzie, a search and rescue dog in training, Dernocoeur says her love of the breed began when she was a child and her father won a German shepherd in a poker game. He named the dog Chip.


Kate Dernocoeur and Mayzie

Today, Dernocoeur, 61, and Mayzie, 3, are a tightly bonded team, working toward Mayzie’s four-test process to become an official search and rescue dog.

They are part of the volunteer Kent County Search and Rescue organization. As a K9 unit, the pair will work primarily with the Kent County Sheriff’s Department, although any law enforcement agency may call them for help if needed.

As a trailing dog, Mayzie must be able to follow a scent over a distance including turns and distractions. Calling their handler-canine team “Team Mayzie,” Dernocoeur says training is a constant in their lives.

“We start our day with our morning mile, and I do five-minute trainings with her all day long. Training is always fun and it’s pretty constant. She’s walking easily two to three miles every day before we get done. I have to be able to keep up with her for the distance.”

The training is daily, consistent and long term. “By the time they’re mission ready, you’ve invested hundreds of hours. It’s a very tight bond.”

Yet before all the training and testing begins, a dog must first pass a test demonstrating the right temperament for such work. Even getting accepted into the program is a challenging process.

The initial acceptance testing involved: being tied to a post in a room without Dernocoeur for five minutes without showing anxiety; walking over unsteady surfaces; the ability to jump; and an interest in following objects across a room.

“We get queries from a lot of people, but it’s not like you can knock on the door and get right in. There’s a lot of dedication it requires — it’s a lifestyle.”

Dernocoeur, a volunteer firefighter and writer, has gone on about six search-and-rescue missions working with other dogs that are fully mission ready. Like the canines in the program, the handlers must also receive extensive training.

German shepherds are commonly used for search-and-rescue work, largely because of the breed’s intelligence.

“They are intense dogs,” Dernocoeur said. “You have to put the time in with them, or they’re not OK.”

While Mayzie is a working girl, she still enjoys a bit of pampering from time to time. Dernocoeur takes her for an occasional “spa day” during which she receives a bath, blow dry, pedicure and sometimes a new bow or scarf. She also loves to fetch balls.
But she knows when it’s time to get serious.

“She knows when I put my uniform on and pick up a certain bag, it’s time to work,” Dernocoeur said. “And she loves it. She’s like, ‘That’s why I’m alive. That’s why I’m here.’”

Trained to lift spirits
Among the 23,000 workers on staff throughout Spectrum Health, four have the distinction of bringing smiles and lifting spirits of patients, visitors and other staff members as part of their job description.

Their names are Fix, Rex, Ajax and Cain. All four are canine workers who make their hospital rounds visiting with patients and stopping now and then for a scratch behind the ears from hospital staff.

Spectrum Health police dog Cain enjoys attention from Seth Thomas at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital as Security Police K9 Officer John McGarry looks on.

The four male German shepherds are highly trained professionals on staff in Spectrum Health’s security department, capable of finding missing persons and other security duties.

Yet because Spectrum campuses are typically safe and peaceful, the four often occupy their time being escorted by trained dog handlers who take them to various Spectrum locations to visit.

Brian Uridge, director of security services for Spectrum Health, says 95 percent of the dogs’ time is spent simply making people happy.

“We get requests multiple times a day, patients requesting to see specific dogs. … The dog sees the patient, the patient’s family, and the family takes pictures and posts the pictures on Facebook. It really is an unbelievable patient-staff satisfier,” he said.

Clearly, one of the most heartwarming aspects of Uridge’s job is reading emails from patients’ families telling how visits from Fix, Rex, Ajax or Cain impacted their experience at Spectrum Health.

“I get teared up telling the stories,” he said. “I’ve seen firsthand the positive impact of the canines on patients, staff and visitors. One person said, ‘This is the first time my child has smiled in weeks.’”

Another wrote: “This is the first time my father has been able to use his right hand after a stroke — to pet the dog.”

The four dogs were hired when they were between 1 and 2 years old. Each was purchased from the same company at a cost of about $7,000 to $8,000, and immediately began a five-week training program. They will continue to receive training throughout their tenure at Spectrum.

“I tell people the dogs paid for themselves a hundred times over in their first weeks,” Uridge said, adding, “One of our first days with one of our dogs on the job, a man was getting treatment. His own dog was being put down that day and he was unable to be there because he was in the hospital. He asked to just have a dog come and pet the dog.”

While bringing comfort and smiles to patients and those at their side, the contribution the canines make to fellow staff members is also a notable part of their workday. Uridge says seeing and interacting with the dogs lifts the morale of staff, and having them as part of his own office staff is a joy.

“We’ve always got canines coming in and running around our office. It’s a fun place to work,” Uridge said.

Yet, as with any co-workers, there is a challenge or two. Uridge and his staff must resist any temptation to give treats or food to the dogs.

And, he added, “We spend a lot of money on lint rollers.” GR

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