The dog's name is Tippy, but he's anything but. In fact, Tippy, an 18-month old Labrador retriever, is the steadying presence in Wendy Foster's life.
For the past 20 years, Foster has had a so-far undiagnosable progressive neuron disorder that produces increasing dizziness, muscular weakness, and loss of balance. But Tippy, her service dog, is there to help her.
She can place her hand on his head or his back to steady her walking and prevent falls; when she drifts to one side as she walks, Tippy can help her keep her trajectory straight. If she falls, she can put her hands on Tippy's back and push herself up. Foster also uses one crutch to help her movement. Tippy is a slow walker, but that doesn't bother Foster.
"I'm just as slow as he is," she said.
Foster and Tippy gave a demonstration of working together at a recent meeting of the Essex Rotary Club at the Essex Yacht Club. The club donated $8,500 toward purchasing the service dog. The total cost of the dog is well over $20,000, but the recipient is initially responsible for approximately $9,500 of that amount and can receive the dog while still paying the fee off.
"There are no words to convey the thanks I feel," Foster told the Rotary gathering.
Foster demonstrated Tippy's obedience to basic commands for Rotary members and spoke about some of the more advanced maneuvers the dog is capable of. With a rope attached to the handle, Tippy can tug a refrigerator door open and then nudge it closed. Should Foster fall down in such a way that she cannot boost herself up using Tippy's back, he will on command continue to bark until help comes.
"Luckily, we haven't had to do that," Foster added.
Tippy demonstrated the calmness and unflappability absolutely necessary for a service dog when the small cannon that is fired at the lowering of the flag in the evening at the yacht club went off. Some of the guests flinched at the very loud bang, but Tippy neither moved nor made a sound.
Tippy is the second service dog that Foster has had. Her first companion, a female Labrador named Alli, developed a rare eye condition leading to blindness. Over the three years that Foster worked with Alli, the dog developed a particular skill for which she had not been trained. She was able to recognize when Foster was about to have a severe migraine headache, and push continually with her muzzle until Foster had taken medicine to prevent the attack, or at least its severity. Foster is hoping that over time Tippy will develop the same talent. The two have worked together only since February.
Both Alli and Tippy come from National Education for Assistance Dogs Services, which uses an unusual combination of personnel for its training program. During the week, prisoners at various correctional institutions work with the dogs. The prisoners are screened for the purpose, not on the basis of their criminal offenses, but on the basis of the suitability as trainers. On the weekends, the dogs are taken to training families for more socialization.
Both Alli and now Tippy have made differences for Foster beyond helping with physical challenges. Foster, who worked for some 26 years as a preschool teacher, was forced by her condition to retire in 2007. She said that talking to four- and five-year-olds had never been a problem, but she felt real fear when speaking to adults. Since working with the service dogs, all that has changed. She has addressed civic groups as well as state legislatures on the subject of the availability of drugs to treat chronic pain.
The U.S. Pain Foundation, on whose behalf she speaks, has called her one of its top advocacy ambassadors.
"I never could have imagined going and speaking before," she said.
The service dogs, she said, have done more than given back the life she thought she had lost. They have given her a new life.
Glenn Herman, president of the Essex Rotary, noted that the funds for projects like Foster's service dog, along with other Rotary initiatives that include support for Sister Cities Essex Haiti and college scholarships for local students come from activities like the upcoming Rotary shad bake on Saturday, June 2 at Essex Elementary School. The event is an Essex Rotary tradition; this is the 54th annual shad bake.