Service dogs help people in wheelchairs navigate winter

 
 
Updated 2/9/2015 5:42 AM
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  • Being matched with a companion dog during her two-week training session in Ohio, Danielle Austin of Carol Stream says her dog provided by Canine Companions for Independence will help her with lots of chores, including pulling her wheelchair through the snow.

    Being matched with a companion dog during her two-week training session in Ohio, Danielle Austin of Carol Stream says her dog provided by Canine Companions for Independence will help her with lots of chores, including pulling her wheelchair through the snow. Courtesy of Canine Companions for Independence

  • It might be T-shirt weather at the Canine Companions for Independence training session in Ohio, but Lombard native Pearl Gannon is training with a dog that can help her maneuver through the snow and ice back home.

    It might be T-shirt weather at the Canine Companions for Independence training session in Ohio, but Lombard native Pearl Gannon is training with a dog that can help her maneuver through the snow and ice back home. Courtesy of Canine Companions for Independence

  • For most suburbanites, a shoveled sidewalk that ends with a mound of snow means a perilous step into the slush. For people who use wheelchairs, that obstacle can mean the end of a trip.

      For most suburbanites, a shoveled sidewalk that ends with a mound of snow means a perilous step into the slush. For people who use wheelchairs, that obstacle can mean the end of a trip. Burt Constable | Staff Photographer

  • This parking spot reserved for people with disabilities remains buried in snow and ice. People who use wheelchairs face obstacles such as narrow pathways and snow mounds left by plows.

      This parking spot reserved for people with disabilities remains buried in snow and ice. People who use wheelchairs face obstacles such as narrow pathways and snow mounds left by plows. Burt Constable | Staff Photographer

  • Wearing a special harness, this dog from Canine Companions for Independence can pull a wheelchair down a sidewalk in the summer or even through snow and ice.

    Wearing a special harness, this dog from Canine Companions for Independence can pull a wheelchair down a sidewalk in the summer or even through snow and ice. Courtesy of Canine Companions for Independence

  • Teaching her new dog to pick up a dropped phone is just one of the 40 commands Danielle Austin and her new dog learn during two weeks of training with Canine Companions for Independence in Ohio. Austin, who lives in Carol Stream, soon will learn how to have her dog pull her wheelchair through the slush, snow and ice back home.

    Teaching her new dog to pick up a dropped phone is just one of the 40 commands Danielle Austin and her new dog learn during two weeks of training with Canine Companions for Independence in Ohio. Austin, who lives in Carol Stream, soon will learn how to have her dog pull her wheelchair through the slush, snow and ice back home. Courtesy of Canine Companions for Independence

  • This companion dog helps Danielle Austin of Carol Stream during two weeks of training with Canine Companions for Independence in Ohio. Among the tasks they are working on will be pulling her wheelchair through the suburban snow.

    This companion dog helps Danielle Austin of Carol Stream during two weeks of training with Canine Companions for Independence in Ohio. Among the tasks they are working on will be pulling her wheelchair through the suburban snow. Courtesy of Canine Companions for Independence

Many suburbanites are sick of snow drifts, slick ice, dirty slush, numbing cold and those spinning wheels.

"I push forward, and if I can't go forward, I push backward," says Danielle Austin, a 27-year-old Carol Stream educator and Ms. Wheelchair Illinois 2013, explaining how her strategy for freeing her snowbound wheelchair is similar to the one she employs to get her car out of a drift. "I've gotten stuck in my chair. If I still can't get out, I need people to come help me. I wait for someone to come push."

This week, she's moving a bit closer to getting much more dependable help. Through Canine Companions for Independence, Austin is being matched with a 2-year-old service dog trained to follow more than 40 commands designed to make her life easier.

"Some of the tasks they complete include opening and closing doors and drawers, turning on and off light switches, retrieving dropped or out-of-reach items, and even helping pull a manual wheelchair," says Ashley Koehler, development associate for the not-for-profit organization. "The dogs wear a special vest the handler can hold on to as they move down a hallway or sidewalk. The command for this is 'pull.'"

Austin says she's looking forward to next week's pull training at the facility outside Columbus, Ohio. She can't reveal the name of her dog, a Labrador-golden retriever mix, until the pair complete training on Friday and Canine Companions deems Austin and her dog a good match.

"The pull command is one of the top three things on my list of things I want my dog to do," agrees Pearl Gannon, 28, the reigning Ms. Wheelchair Illinois and a friend of Austin who also is in Ohio training with a dog. An athletic young girl growing up in Lombard, Gannon started using a wheelchair late in her teens because of Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, a neurological disorder that causes pain and weakness in her legs, and effects movement in her fingers, hands and wrists. A college student in Chicago now, Gannon says she expects companion dogs will be huge helps for her and Austin.

"Pearl has a girl and I have a boy, and they look almost identical," Austin says of the dogs they hope to bring home next week.

In the meantime, Austin, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy when she was 1, says some of the winter obstacles faced by people in wheelchairs don't have to be.

"I usually don't worry when I go to work," says Austin. A substitute teacher with Glenbard Township High School District 87, which encompasses Glen Ellyn, Carol Stream, Glendale Heights and Lombard, as well as parts of Bloomingdale, Hanover Park, Addison, Downers Grove, Wheaton and unincorporated areas, Austin also teaches at Community Consolidated School District 93, which serves elementary school students in Carol Stream, Bloomingdale and Hanover Park.

"Schools are great because they put the salt down and clear the curb cuts," Austin says.

Shopping areas and neighborhoods often aren't that thorough.

"It could be there's not a clear curb cut outside the store I want to go to, so I have to go way out of my way," Austin says, explaining how she'll roll through a parking lot looking for a gap where she can access the sidewalk. "Unless you have a disability or have a child with a disability, you don't realize what an inconvenience it is."

Even some parking spaces reserved for drivers with disabilities remain dangerous.

"Some are cleared real nice and some are done with no salt, so I have to watch for ice spots when I get my chair out of the trunk," Austin says.

Often sidewalks look clear, but as her wheelchair reaches the curb, the path grows too narrow or has a big mound of snow left by a plow. Shoppers often struggle to step over the snow, but Austin doesn't have that luxury.

"If the neighbors don't do the sidewalk then I'm forced into the street, and I'm scared of getting run over," she says. "I get stuck or I start to slide. I can get out of my chair to push and I can take a couple of steps holding on to it, but I prefer not because of the risk that I could fall. I try to avoid going out because that's not a pretty picture."

Gannon says a pulling dog will be a vast improvement over her current strategy when she gets stuck. "I try to pop a wheelie out of it," she says, explaining how she'll lean back to put all her weight on the chair's two large wheels. "I've had a couple of occasions where I've fallen back."

A wealth of videos online show wheelchairs with snow tires, or even rugged electric chairs with snow plows on the front.

"They have snow tires, but we usually don't get enough snow where I need them," says Austin, who has a bachelor's degree in rehabilitation services from Southern Illinois University.

Even when she is able to maneuver smoothly around the suburbs, winter still packs a punch because she needs her hands to work the cold, metal wheelchair grips.

"I'll wear knit gloves and wear a glove on top of that," Austin says. "The first layer gets pretty wet."

Once inside, her wheelchair can't be left at the back door like a pair of messy boots.

"My tires pick up everything," Austin says. "I'll use an old towel my parents have left in the garage, but no matter what, I'm going to track in something."

Parents Nancy and Gary Austin help their daughter when they're home.

"They'll clean my car off and go out and start the car for me when it's really cold," Danielle Austin says.

If all works well, Austin will be spending a lot more time outside, regardless of the weather. She will, after all, have to walk her new dog.

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