Getting a New Leash on Life: A Dog Service Program Grows

National Education for Assistance Dogs Services (NEADS) started in 1976 as a smaller place - and smaller concept - on the campus of Holliston Junior College in Lenox, Mass., using money given by the Medfield (Mass.) Lions Club. It was then a hearing-dog program, and that first year managed to train five dogs (flunking two).

Sheila O'Brien, the current director, began as a volunteer in 1978. "I've been with this program 18 of its 20 years," she notes. "I had my master's in special education and had taught deaf kids. Originally I wanted to be a veterinarian but I couldn't get in. It was difficult in those days to get into vet school and doubly difficult for a woman to. Now the classes are 75 percent women."

In 1979 the group moved to a farm in Jefferson, Mass., and in 1984 Ms. O'Brien became director. Two years later, in 1986, NEADS moved on to a house and small barn in West Boylston, Mass.

"We had 10 kennel runs then," O'Brien recalls, vs. 26 now. It was very small facility that didn't allow us to train the number of dogs we needed to in order to keep up with the demand."The group expanded its mission from hearing dogs to service dogs in 1988, and the next year changed its name to New England Assistance Dog Service to reflect the new function. When the name changed to its present one in 1989, the wording allowed the same acronym to be used.

The current 12-acre site was bought in 1992, and in September 1995 NEADS moved in. The facility includes a house fitted for people in wheel chairs so new dog owners can learn how to work with their canine partners.

Last April, 21 assistance dog "teams" received their diplomas, verifying they were ready to be on their own. "A hearing dog is alert to the sounds in a person's home environment," says O'Brien, "so we set this up as a model apartment" that simulates a regular home.

Worldwide there are some 30 places that train hearing or service dogs, O'Brien figures, many of them one-person operations. "Probably five are major hearing-service-dog providers like us," she says, "and eight large [seeing-eye] guide-dog associations in this country. That's a much more established and well-endowed operation." Seeing eye dogs originated in Switzerland, she says, while hearing and service dogs are an American concept.

The demand for the service is increasing, as more people learn how different their lives can be with the aid of these canine partners.

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