- The Washington Times - Monday, January 2, 2006

Nonprofit group provides poodles to the disabled

HAMPTON, Va. — Vikki Coggsdale reaches down, puts one hand on either side of the standard poodle’s hard leather-covered harness and uses the dog to steady herself as she gets up from an easy chair.

Miss Coggsdale has been unsteady on her feet ever since she began suffering from violent seizures that make it impossible for her to do the things many take for granted.

She couldn’t go outside alone, cook or even go up or down stairs by herself because she did not know when a seizure would start.

That was until Hampton’s Jasmine Charitable Trust introduced her to Michelle, a dog trained to warn Miss Coggsdale of oncoming seizures and provide other assistance.

Because of their sensitive sense of smell, dogs can detect small chemical changes that occur in a person just before the person has a seizure.

Miss Coggsdale took Michelle home to Richmond to live with her for the first time in December, after the dog was trained with Jasmine Charitable Trust founder Beverlee Engle for more than nine months.

Born out of necessity in 2000, the nonprofit trust works exclusively with standard poodles — the breed that Miss Engle bred and showed for years before she became disabled about eight years ago.

Miss Engle suffers from a trauma disorder that makes it difficult for her to leave her house. She had been around dogs since her teens and figured it made sense to turn to her dog when she needed help.

“Dogs were something I always felt comfortable with,” she said.

She first looked into getting a dog from an established service-dog training operation, but was told they would not allow any of their dogs to be placed in a home that already had other dogs.

Miss Engle refused to get rid of her former show dogs, including Jasmine.

Instead, she did some research and began training her silver-colored poodle, Jasmine, herself at home.

“I began by asking her for her right and left paw, and she did it beautifully,” Miss Engle said.

Jasmine — the organization was named for her — died in 2000.

Miss Engle now gets around with the help of Lennox, a white poodle who wears a stiff harness with a patch telling people “Please don’t pet me, I’m working” when she is assisting Miss Engle.

The dog goes with Miss Engle everywhere. Service dogs are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act and are allowed to go anywhere their human partners go.

Miss Engle says she works with poodles because they are smart and are trained easily. They also do not shed and do not produce dander that aggravates some allergies.

About 20 dogs live with Miss Engle, either in her home or in the two-story kennel in the back yard. All of the dogs either are in training and working with Miss Engle or their partner or are retired.

Miss Engle says she lets each dog choose its partner, instead of the other way around.

“If you are going to spend the rest of your life with a person, 24/7, you should have a choice,” she said.

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