Lynne LoCascio lay on the floor beside her bed, alone and paralyzed.
She had been battling deteriorating mobility for 17 years, and doctors had thus far failed to accurately diagnose her illness. First, they had told her she was depressed; then they said she had lupus; then a brain tumor.
Just 10 days before she got out of bed on that game-changing morning in July of 1988 to take her last independent step for a year, LoCascio had received a call from her most recent doctor saying that the MRI was clear; there was nothing wrong with her. That diagnosis would change not long after what LoCascio now refers to as “the big attack.”
Her husband, Sal, found her immobilized on the floor and rushed her to the hospital. This time, doctors diagnosed her with a stroke.
After nearly two decades of suffering with no relief and no answers, a spinal tap revealed that LoCascio had not had a stroke; she was not depressed, nor did she have lupus or a brain tumor.
She had MS, or multiple sclerosis, and her lifelong battle was just beginning.
A training session
Kim Peelen taps the wall beside the kitchen light switches of her Gilbert home, patiently repeating the command for a third time.
She’s talking to Nan, the Golden Retriever she is training to be an assistance dog for people with disabilities through a Scottsdale-based nonprofit called Power Paws Assistance Dogs. Nan nudges at the switch that controls the back patio light, then looks up at Peelen for assurance.
“Switch,” Peelen says again, just as patiently.
The patio light turns on, and Peelen praises Nan in the kind of high-pitched, squeaking voice one would use with a young child.
Peelen, a tall, slender woman with silvering hair and rectangular glasses, runs Nan through this exercise every morning during what she calls “formal training time.” Training a service dog is a constant task, but Nan is at her best in the mornings, so Peelen uses the time to drill her on as many of the near-90 commands she must learn in the next year and a half.
Nan stands on her hind legs with her front paws on the kitchen counter and grabs a tin can with her mouth.
Nan hands the tin can to Peelen.
This command is what Peelen calls a “go-to.” When Nan is getting too distracted or excited, Peelen gives a command that she knows Nan enjoys. “Roll” tells Nan to lie on her back with her belly exposed, and Nan obeys because she knows it means a belly rub.
Nan reluctantly walks to her kennel and lies down.
Peelen repeats this routine daily, adding and refining different commands with each session. For about 18 months, this will be Peelen’s and Nan’s routine. They will become good friends. Then, when Nan is perfectly polished and practiced, Peelen will give her up to a person awaiting her much-needed canine assistance.
National need for assistance dogs
Lynne LoCascio and Kim Peelen don’t know each other, but they have something in common. LoCascio needs an assistance dog to live an independent life. Peelen trains assistance dogs.
According to numbers provided by Matthew Brault of the Health and Disability Statistics Branch at the U.S. Census Bureau, 56.7 million people reported having a disability in 2010. Of these, 12.3 million claimed to need assistance with daily tasks — tasks that dogs can help accomplish.
The United States Service Dogs registry offers a list of disabilities that qualify a person for an assistance dog. Among these are common cases such as brain or spinal cord injuries, diabetes, stroke and multiple sclerosis.
Many of the disabilities listed by the registry involve difficulty accomplishing what the Census report refers to as ADL, or “Activities of Daily Living,” which include toileting, eating, bathing and dressing. These simple tasks can be immense hurdles for people with disabilities. Of the 12.3 million people who claimed a need for assistance in the 2010 census, 2.4 million reported needing help to accomplish three or more activities of daily living.
The number of Americans who could use assistance dogs is large, but there are relatively few people willing to sacrifice the time and effort to train assistance animals.
The trainers at Power Paws recognize that this is a sacrifice that they make so that others may live independently.
Power Paws Assistance Dogs is a nonprofit organization based in Scottsdale that specializes in breeding, raising, training and placing dogs to assist with the needs of people with disability-related limitations.
The nonprofit’s office is located in a former kindergarten classroom at Apache Schools. Puppy raisers for the organization include Robyn Abels, executive director of the organization.
Abels’ family has been involved in training assistance dogs since the 1980s with an organization called Canine Companions for Independence, she says. After graduating from high school in 1999, Abels’ oldest daughter, Shoshanna, decided she wanted to start an accredited organization in Arizona, and created Power Paws.
Power Paws received its federal nonprofit status in 2001, and remains the only assistance dog training organization in the state to have been accredited by Assistance Dogs International, Abels says.
Because it is a nonprofit organization, Power Paws depends heavily on volunteers. They have around 30 volunteer puppy raisers who train and care for the dogs in their own homes for up to two years.
The organization has also brought in as many as 1000 volunteer “puppy petters,” who are hired to hold puppies just days after they are born in order to accustom them to human touch, sound and scent. When the puppies are at least 9 weeks old, they are placed in a puppy raiser’s home, and their rigorous training begins.
At any given time, Power Paws has around 40 dogs in training, and 50 people who have requested to receive one as their own assistance dog. To apply for an assistance dog through Power Paws, hopefuls send a letter to the organization telling their story and how an assistance dog could benefit them.
A single dog costs Power Paws $22,000 to raise and train, but sells for only $6,000. The nonprofit makes up for the rest of the expense through donations and grants.
After a person has been approved for receiving an assistance dog, Robyn Abels and her team at Power Paws put the clients through a process they call “eHarmony for dogs.” The dogs and clients are matched by physical needs and personality style through a series of personality assessment tests.
Power Paws hosts an annual formal graduation to recognize all of the dogs that have completed training and been placed with a matching client. Puppy raisers ceremoniously hand over the assistance dog’s leash to the person who the dog has just been placed with.
“It’s very emotional,” Abels says. “These dogs change peoples’ lives.”
Willing to ‘hand them over’
“I feel it’s a community service that not many people can do, and I think I’m good at it.”
When Peelen recommends raising an assistance dog for Power Paws to friends, the response she says she gets more than any other is, “I could never give them away.”
Peelen understands this sentiment, but says she has never felt that way herself. She has been training dogs for eight years and has experienced the many ups and downs that come with it, including the heartache of giving a dog away.
“I’m able to keep the long-term view,” she says, “and hand them over.”
Peelen has been an animal lover since childhood. A native Arizonan with smiling eyes and a soft voice, she says she dreamed as a child of one day becoming a vet — a dream that was quickly halted when she accompanied her pets to veterinary appointments, and nearly fainted when she saw the animals under stress.
When she and her husband, Tim, had a family, they agreed to teach their three daughters and one son from home. They received regular newsletters on various events within the home schooling community, and one of these newsletters contained an ad for Power Paws that said they needed puppy raisers.
It was the perfect opportunity for Peelen to have a job caring for an animal, and it would also be an educational experience for her children — a family project and a way to instill a sense of service and community in her children, she says.
She did not realize at the time that, eight years down the road, when all of her children were either in or graduated from college, she would still be raising assistance dogs.
Nan is the first dog Peelen has raised with all of her children out of the home. Raising an assistance dog is a time-consuming and demanding process, and Nan is no exception.
“Nan is very challenging because she is a fearful dog,” Peelen said.
Nan is afraid of taking walks in the dark. She is afraid of grooming and the laundry room. She gets nervous in public places and barks at everyone that walks by the Peelens’ home. Because of Nan’s timid personality, Peelen says that everything she does in training has to be very slow and calm.
“It’s easy to get angry or frustrated,” she says. “You have to be able to tell yourself ‘stop it, back up, she needs training here.’”
Peelen’s ability to do just this is what has made her and Nan such a perfect match. They are together throughout the day, and every moment is an opportunity to train. Whether she needs something from the fridge and has Nan retrieve it, or she drops the TV remote and needs Nan to pick it up, Peelen is constantly aware of opportunities to teach.
Soon, the commands Peelen spends so much of her time teaching Nan will no longer be practice. Nan will be placed with a person that needs her assistance and companionship. After spending every day together for over two years, Peelen will hand the leash over, and Nan will go to her new home, where all of Peelen’s diligent and patient teaching will help improve the life of a person in need.
“I think I have the self-discipline and self-denial to set aside what I want to do at any moment of the day,” Peelen says. “This is my responsibility. I’m the one that needs to train her and help her get through this to make her an effective tool.”
There is a cane in almost every room of the LoCascio home. In the garage, a wheelchair gathers dust.
Griffin the Goldendoodle assistance dog stands waste high at Lynne LoCascio’s side, and LoCascio grips the leather harness strapped to Griffin’s back, standing taller and stronger than she ever had with those old canes.
She has been battling MS for more than three decades now, and she is no stranger to needing assistance with her mobility — from the canes scattered throughout her house, to the helping hand of her husband, Sal, to the wheelchair she would rather let gather dust than sit in.
LoCascio is a fighter. The kind of person that will just push and push and push, she says. A former foxhunter and horse trainer from New York, LoCascio says she has always been able to overcome the many obstacles placed in her path.
“You have to push yourself every step of the way,” LoCascio says in her thick, raspy New York accent. “Put one foot in front of the other, and use it or lose it.”
She adjusts the volume of the stereo system filling her home with the voices of Sarah Brightman and Andrea Bocelli.
“C’mon, Griff,” she says, and they walk together to the large, black leather easy chair in her living room. The massive windows just behind her overlook the open desert landscape of far north Scottsdale, and sunlight pours in, lighting up her blue eyes, silver earrings and short, light blonde hair.
She lets go of Griffin’s harness, and instantly there is a change. Her body tilts slightly, and her hands fumble for the support of the end table, then the arm of the chair. It is as if, as soon as she releases her grip on Griffin’s harness, all the lights go out — her movements become imprecise and her eyes lose focus.
Griffin shifts nervously behind her, getting in the way at times. “Down, Griff,” LoCascio says, then falls back into the chair. Griffin immediately curls up at her feet. The harness means he is working, and as long as he is working, he is at her side.
Due to her MS, LoCascio suffers from balance and muscle coordination issues resulting from a disconnect between her brain and her extremities — a symptom known as ataxia. Ataxia is commonly remedied by using some form of stabilizing assistance. Holding on to something, even if it’s just a piece of paper, LoCascio says, brings her confused body into balance.
“When you lose something that you’re used to having,” she says, “you have to live differently than you’ve ever had to live.”
LoCascio lost much of her independence to MS. And in the first several years of battling the disease, she feared she might lose more to it.
“The biggest struggle is in a relationship,” she says.
LoCascio’s husband, Sal, has stood beside her through every high and low. When she first became sick and was unable to walk, he would carry her to the shower, bathe her, dress her, put her in bed and feed her every morning before going to work.
Both she and Sal had to learn how to live a new life with MS. He could have left her to face it alone, but he did not. At one point, LoCascio even asked her husband, “What are you ever going to want with a wife like me?”
“I have learned after all these years,” Sal replied, “it’s not your body that I love, it’s your brain.”
Hearing her husband say that, LoCascio says, was the first forward step she took in learning to accept and live with her disease.
Griffin has been another step forward for LoCascio.
When she heard of Power Paws from a friend, she could not believe that a dog could help her walk again without a cane in one hand and her husband at the other. She could not believe it, that is, until she grasped an assistance dog’s harness for the first time and was brought to tears as she walked a straight line.
LoCascio brought Griffin home last September, and has since regained the freedom to move independently throughout and beyond her home without being confined to a chair or bent over a semi-stable cane. With him at her side, LoCascio spends her time volunteering.
Griffin was paid for almost in full by the Catholic Church, where LoCascio says she offers counseling to people who have experienced a loss. She uses her many years of experience riding the unpredictable waves of her often-debilitating disorder to help others find peace in their own personal chaos.
“I’m very upbeat about what I have,” LoCascio says. “And I don’t mind sharing it.”