Service dogs: improving lives, one family at a time

service dogs, Arizona, Arizona Goldens
From left: Jeremy, Suzy (9) and Bo (5) Brunk and Jamie Arrendondo, of Tempe, with Suzy’s service dog, Irish. Photo by Tac Coluccio.

Meet Irish, a distinguished “gentleman”—well mannered, kind and highly educated. Irish is the service dog for Suzy Brunk, of Tempe, a 9-year-old who has both autism and epilepsy.

The golden retriever alerts the teacher when Suzy is about to have a seizure. He provides counter pressure by pushing or leaning against Suzy to relieve her anxiety. Because Irish has been trained to react to Suzy’s emotional states, he also gives Suzy the peace of mind to sleep through the night in her own bed—something she had never done until the first night Irish joined the household.

Best of all, Irish has helped Suzy make friends. “She used to sit alone at lunchtime,” says her father, Jeremy Brunk, a captain and paramedic with the Scottsdale Fire Department.

Now, Suzy’s table is always full. With Irish by her side, the kids finally have a way to relate to her.

The cost and effort it takes to have a service dog can seem daunting to families, but as Suzy’s mother, Jaime Arredondo, says, “When you’re determined enough, you find a way.”

The decision to obtain a service dog is a quality-of-life issue for most families. Medical journals describe the physical diagnosis but often fail to address the day-to-day struggles that families of children with disabilities face. In the midst of managing the many aspects of a child’s disability, families often contact service-dog agencies out of desperation. Then they discover the missing piece of the puzzle: help with the practical side of daily life.

Training the dogs is costly—ranging between $15,000 and $35,000, with no contribution from medical insurance.

Families often find inventive ways to accomplish the necessary fundraising, says Brian Daugherty, trainer, CEO and self-proclaimed “chief pooper scooper” at Arizona Goldens in Mesa, which raises, trains and places service dogs with adults and children with disabilities. He has heard of events including cow-patty bingo, flamingo flocking, bowl-a-thons, live-Maine-lobster raffles and “Shots for Service Dogs” at local bars.

Some families train their own dogs. The training kit Arizona Goldens offers costs $799 and includes eight DVDs, a 75-page manual, basic training equipment and a leather leash.

Training your own dog requires more dedication than most families’ schedules will allow, says Daugherty. Many individuals who contact the organization about the owner-trained program decide on a professionally trained dog.

Because of charitable donations, Scottsdale-based Arizona Power Paws Assistance Dogs can place a dog for about $8,000. Programs including The Assistance Dog United Campaign and Canines for Disabled Kids can help defray even that cost.

AAEC (Arizona Agribusiness and Equine Center) Early College High School is another option families can pursue. The free, public charter school—now at four Valley locations, plus Prescott Valley—started as an equine and veterinary medicine early-college option for high school students. The Paradise Valley and Estrella Mountain campuses have expanded to include service dog training programs. Trained dogs are placed in selected families’ homes for free.

The difference a service dog can make in families’ lives is nothing short of astonishing.

Scottsdale 16-year-old Nicole Hoetker goes everywhere with Booth, her German shepherd. Nicole, who has autism and struggles with panic attacks, has been able to do things that were virtually impossible before Booth came along. She now hikes, visits public places and attends community college on her own.

“Having a service dog has made my life easier,” says Nicole. “But for some people, it helps them live a life.”

Types of service dogs

  • Medical alert. Help with diabetes, epilepsy and food allergies.
  • Vision. Assist the visually impaired with navigation or with simple tasks, such as locating dropped items.
  • Hearing. Alert to noises and danger.
  • Mobility. Open doors, turn on lights and more.
  • Autism and Down syndrome. Alert to danger, assist in therapy, prevent wandering and soothe anxiety.
  • PTSD. Provide support for a wide range of stress-related issues.