Sarah Lohmeyer used to have to wait by the elevator until someone came along to push the button for her. If she dropped something and no one was around to pick it up, the 17-year-old sometimes had to abandon it.
She has used a wheelchair since she was 5 because of muscular dystrophy. Her hands move very little and have lost the strength they once had. Since she was 9, she has longed for more independence.She got it Saturday in Sharkey, a 14-month-old, sleek black labrador-retriever mix specially trained to be a service dog. If she needs a light turned on or off, she has only to issue the command. When she drops something, she asks him to retrieve it.
The dog was provided by Make-A-Wish Foundation, a nonprofit organization that grants the wishes of children who have life-threatening illnesses.
Sharkey was a dream that almost didn't come true, according to Ken and Robyn Passarella, the "wish granters" (as foundation volunteers are called) assigned to arrange fulfillment of Lohmeyer's wish. Service dogs are tremendously expensive, with training costs running $10,000 or higher.
Because of high demand, someone can wait up to six years for a service dog. And most dogs aren't available to people younger than age 18. But the Passarellas were persistent and kept following leads until they found Cathie Laber, a dog trainer in Portland, who had been training Sharkey for more than nine months for someone who later decided he didn't want a service dog.
Coincidentally, Sharkey's arrival marked the 500th wish granted by the Make-A-Wish Found-ation of Utah.
Although they're just getting acquainted, Laber predicts that they will be great friends and boosters for each other.
"Dogs provide assistance and independence," Laber said. "They give companionship and support. A dog never has something better to do at the moment. He won't tell her secrets to others. And he will always provide love."
Service dogs also provide communication between people with disabilities and people who don't have them. People are afraid of staring or behaving wrong with someone who is disabled, Laber said. No one's shy about admiring a dog.
Laber will leave in a few days and Lohmeyer and Sharkey will settle in to begin their serious working life together. Right now, Laber's concentrating on making sure Lohmeyer can control the dog, so he can be taken into stores, restaurants, college classrooms and anywhere else Lohmeyer goes. It takes as many as six months for human and dog to grow accustomed to each other and work effectively together.
Sharkey will wear a bandana with a Service Dog logo on it, instead of the harnesses used for guide dogs for blind people. He also sports a green button that asks people not to pet him without permission because he's working. Lohmeyer talks softly to Sharkey, who places his front paws on the foot pads of her wheelchair so she can reach him without bending down. He stands patiently while she unties the scarf, then later returns it to his neck.
Granting such life-renewing wishes isn't unusual for the 10-year-old Make-A-Wish Foundation of Utah, said volunteer and events manager Sarah Behrens. People associate the foundation with once-in-a-lifetime trips for children with illnesses, but children's wishes have varied greatly, she said.
Even knowing a wish is going to be granted has proven tremendously beneficial, said Behrens. Children whose lives are sometimes bleak, those discouraged by lengthy treatments and limitation have been rejuvenated because they know something really important to them is just around the corner.