When Kevin Schaefer’s parents first suggested several years ago that he get a service dog, he wasn’t so sure.
Schaefer, now 21, was concerned about taking on the responsibility of a dog. He didn’t want to deal with more stares or rude questions from people who already gawked at the wheelchair he uses to get around because of a condition called spinal muscular atrophy.
“I didn’t want anything that would draw attention to me,” he said.
But Schaefer agreed to learn more and headed to Georgia to visit Canine Assistants, a nonprofit that trains and provides service dogs to children and adults with physical disabilities or other special needs.
That’s where he met Pandy, a golden-haired Labrador Retriever and Golden Retriever mix.
Schaefer needed a dog who was calm enough to handle a crowd and obedient enough to help with daily tasks. With Pandy, he found a match.
“I think the connection was there,” he said.
Over time, the bond between Schaefer and Pandy grew. Today, Pandy is a loyal companion who flips on light switches in Schaefer’s Cary home and can place items he needs on the footrest of his wheelchair.
She travels with him to N.C. State University, where he is majoring in English and works for the student newspaper, the Technician.
Pandy may snooze on the floor while Schaefer is in a lecture, but she’s alert while they’re on the move. And like many pets, Pandy is a constant source of friendship and comfort, he said.
“That kind of unspoken language is there, which is cool to see,” Schaefer said.
Together, they’ve been to Disney World and the beach. They’ll head to Kansas City later this year for a conference about spinal muscular atrophy, a genetic disease that affects the part of the nervous system that controls voluntary muscle movement.
Schaefer has learned that Pandy is always calm in a crowd but doesn’t love loud music or fireworks. She won’t dip a paw in the pool but loves frolicking in the snow.
Part of the family
Ravi Chittilla, a junior at N.C. State who works at the newspaper with Schaefer, said Pandy is a welcome presence in the office. She’s the first service dog he’s gotten to know well, and he’s impressed by how she aids Schaefer.
“Pandy’s part of our Technician family,” he said. “She’s always kind and affectionate.”
Heidi Hulon, a veterinarian at Elanco Animal Health, an animal health products company, said service dogs play an increasingly visible role in helping people with disabilities. People with seizures, post-traumatic stress disorder and other conditions all can benefit from the presence of a highly trained dog.
Elanco provides financial sponsorship to Canine Assistants through a campaign called “Celebrate the Bond.”
“We need to create more awareness about what’s out there and what these dogs can do,” she said.
Schaefer said he’s found Pandy can be disarming. People tend to engage with him about her, rather than focusing impolite questions on him.
He does caution, though, that people should remember Pandy and other service dogs are working. Polite questions and requests to pet her are welcome. Fawning over her while she’s busy is not.
He said a good policy is to follow the Golden Rule.
“Like any person with a service dog or a disability, just treat them like you would anyone else,” he said.
Editor’s Note: Kevin Schaefer’s mother, Cindy, is a correspondent for The News & Observer, which owns the North Raleigh News and Midtown Raleigh News.