Double duty

For one disabled Chico woman, her dog is so much more than a pet

Kim Shepherd and her retriever mix, Captain.

Kim Shepherd and her retriever mix, Captain.

Photo by Daniel Taylor

Dogs trained to assist physically disabled people typically specialize in one of two distinct roles: “guide dogs” that provide assistance to blind people, and “service dogs” that help people with other physical disabilities that limit their mobility or hearing. But for Kim Shepherd, who uses a wheelchair due to the effects of cerebral palsy and is also legally blind, this distinction was just one more challenge to overcome.

Shepherd had the use of a service dog, but had been using a cane to navigate her way around town. “When my other dog retired, a light went on in my head,” Shepherd said. “What if you could take a dog like him and teach him basic guide dog stuff? I’m always that way—if somebody gives me something to use, I’ll go, ‘I wonder if I can make it better for me?’”

The idea took on a new urgency after Shepherd developed severe bursitis, preventing her from using the cane. Though it wasn’t easy, Shepherd was able to train her next dog, Scooby, to act as a guide dog while also performing service dog tasks. That role has now been passed into the able paws of Captain, a 7-year-old golden retriever and yellow Labrador mix, a former rescue dog who has overcome his own early hardships to become an invaluable part of Shepherd’s daily life.

Captain’s main role is that of guide dog. “He does all the things that a guide dog can do for people who walk,” said Shepherd. “Their duty is to obey directional commands like ‘left’ and ‘right,’ take you around obstacles, automatically stop at curbs or steps or doorways.

“Anything that moves and you don’t hear it for some reason,” she continued, “and you give them a directional command, they’re allowed to disobey you and do the opposite of the command that you tell them to do. That’s what’s called intelligent disobedience.”

Captain also performs a wide range of other tasks, such as opening and closing doors, or flipping switches. But it’s not all work and no play. In fact, play is an integral part of keeping an assistance dog from becoming too stressed.

“Play … is more important for a service dog than a pet, because a service dog goes through a lot more physical and mental stress than a pet,” said Shepherd. “Especially a dog for a physically disabled person. They’re on call 24/7.”

Shepherd likens the mindset of a well-trained assistance dog to that of a police officer, whose training allows him or her to perform difficult or dangerous tasks instinctively, but who is also able to become a regular wife, husband, mother or father when the uniform comes off.

“They have to be physically and mentally able to adopt a different attitude and concentrate on what they’re doing,” said Shepherd. “But then when you go home and you take off the harness or the vest they’re wearing, they’re just a total party animal or a pet-me, love-me couch potato like Captain. They’re a normal dog once you walk them through the door.”

Despite her visual impairment, Shepherd is an avid computer user with the aid of special software and is currently putting together an eBook of guide and service dog resources. She also works part-time writing articles on health and fitness for Mains’l Services, which is run by Far Northern Regional Center. She sees technology such as cybernetics and advances in medical science as alleviating much of the need for dogs like Captain in the somewhat near future, especially for low-income disabled people who often lack the resources required to obtain assistance dogs.

In the meantime, Shepherd encourages anyone who wants to get involved, from raising puppies to be trained as assistance dogs to volunteering at kennels or donating supplies to local training programs.

“Basically, I wouldn’t have any quality of life without these dogs,” Shepherd said. “I would be totally dependent on people.”

—Daniel Taylor