“Will” met me for coffee one brisk morning in March. Amiable and handsome, he sat with us inside Stone Cup. Wait a minute. “Will Goodwill” is a Golden Retriever. He and his trainer Sarah Hollyday are welcome everywhere because they are 2008 graduates of the Bergin Institute’s Service Dog Training Seminar, an intensive six-week program in Santa Rosa, California.
“Will”’s mission is to be the pilot for a joint Goodwill Chattanooga-McKamey Animal Center venture to rehabilitate suitable shelter dogs as canine assistants to the disabled. From four months of age when his breeder donated him to the program, “Will” has been training for this life. McKamey had just opened in time for his puppy shower and he was enrolled in the gift registry at Bone Appetite.
“The whole first year is basic obedience and making sure he’s comfortable with public access in stores and places where dogs aren’t normally allowed,” says Hollyday, who remembers the work involved bringing “Will” along. “He chewed up everything: my husband’s driver’s license and two number keys off of his cell phone.” While being house trained, “Will” was found one morning, standing over a floor vent, peeing. “No evidence!” Holliday laughs now. It is expected that volunteers will raise subsequent program dogs in their homes.
Away in California, Hollyday kept a blog of her experiences, which began with teaching her newly and scientifically chosen charge “Kate” some ninety commands, including her personal favorite, snuggle. For her own part, Hollyday had to navigate through malls, elevators, escalators and buses, sometimes in a wheelchair. To be sure there was down time, like visits to farmer’s markets and a July 4th swimming party in the Russian River, all with the dogs, of course.
The final two weeks of the seminar are client boot camp. “Working with a person who needs a service animal is the most important thing taught out there. I had to work with someone who’d never had an animal before and spent two days explaining how to enter an elevator.”
Home in Chattanooga, “Will” found a booster in Hamilton County Department of Education Superintendent Dr. Jim Scales, who also sits on the Goodwill board. In addition to raising disability awareness, “Will”’s school appearances have become a fundraising tool for a second dog to be named “Hamilton”, whom McKamey will place with a disabled client. To date, about $13,000 of the required $25,000 has been collected.
It was my pleasure to spend a recent morning with “Will” and Goodwill’s Dog Program Education Assistant Brandy Chambers, who works with him weekly. Always eager to please, “Will” turned the office lights off and on again, picked up his own leash and opened file and cabinet drawers that had been fitted with tassels for his jaws. What a boon his help must be to someone whose mobility is challenged. Add to that the unconditional love for which our best friends are so well known and anyone’s path would become smoother.