After living with multiple sclerosis for a number of years, constantly dropping things and struggling to pick them up, Robin Turek was relieved to know there was someone, or rather something, to help her out.

Her aide, a yellow Labrador retriever named Colonel, will collect things she may drop, retrieve the phone when it’s ringing and even push elevator buttons for her while she balances on platform crutches.

“Knowing he’s here for me, that’s a great relief,” the Madison woman said. “He’s also great companionship for me as well.”

Colonel is the product of NEADS, Dogs for Deaf and Disabled Americans, of Princeton, Mass. Turek and Colonel have been paired since the fall of 2008. The organization has been rescuing and training dogs to help people with a range of disabilities for 34 years.

“It started as a hearing dog program,” John Moon, chief communications officer for the organization, said. “It was one of the first in the U.S. and today is the oldest in the country.”

Since starting, the program has expeople dealing with other physical limitations, such as Turek, he said.

Not only does the program help the humans receiving the dogs, but it also benefits the animals as well. Moon said dogs with high energy are often rescued for the program.

“That high energy is a great quality for those dogs because of their activity level,” he said, adding that the tasks they perform require a lot of energy.

Dogs arrive at the program’s learning center and spend several weeks learning basic commands, such as sit, stay and checking in with their human partner. Then, dogs will be transferred to one of 13 correctional facilities in New England and paired with inmates pre-screened to work with the dogs, Moon said.

After spending time in the facility, the dogs will be returned to the learning center for finishing work and paired with a human partner waiting for their companion.

Once Turek had gone through the application process herself, she waited for that right canine match to come along. She said the organization considers the tasks that the dogs will need to perform, as well as the size to be compatible with their human partner.

“It took less than a year to match me with Colonel,” she said, and in the meantime, she worked on fundraising.

“The dogs cost between $23,000 and $30,000, depending on the kind of dog we’re training. We ask our clients to help fundraise $9,500 of that cost,” Moon said.

Sunday, the program graduated 14 clients and their dogs. This spring’s class included Deborah Baker of Freeport and her new hearing dog, Rusty.

“Rusty has greatly enriched my life in ways I never imagined,” Baker wrote in an e-mail. “I never realized how much I miss around me by not hearing sounds. He helps me with the doorbell, door knock, stove buzzer, when my name is called, fire alarms and when my neighbors come home or leave.”

Rusty, a sheltie-beagle mix, also helps pick up items Baker might drop, and while hiking together, he alerts her to wildlife she may have missed before, she said. As a new graduate, she said she enjoys exploring the world with her new partner and added sense of security.

“Rusty has shown me a life filled with more independence than I dreamed I could be capable of and I no longer feel isolated in a hearing world,” Baker said.

Both Baker and Turek live alone and said that their canines add level of comfort to their lives. Turek admits that before having Colonel by her side, she didn’t feel very safe.

“Not only safety, but security. Knowing that I’m not alone,” she said.

Staff Writer Emma Bouthillette can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:
ebouthillette@pressherald.com