- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 22, 2015

PEORIA, Ill. (AP) - In terms of temperament, the black-haired poodle Lincoln and the redheaded Julianne Smith are a tidy match. Mostly, it’s the cold weather. Neither of them can stand it.

Under a spell of near constant cold or snow in the month of February, the two have spent more time than usual holed up inside of Smith’s ground floor apartment. Although he’s great company, Lincoln is not simply a domestic pet - he is Smith’s service dog.

Smith, 34, diagnosed with Type 2 spinal muscular atrophy that limits the muscle mobility, has minor weakness in small muscles like her hands and toes but major weakness in large muscles. She can’t shrug her shoulders or lift her legs, but she can move her fingers and wiggle her toes. She needs Lincoln to open doors, to turn on lights, and to fetch her phone when it slips out of her hand and to the ground. He’s even fetched her credit card once.

Lincoln and Smith were brought together through Paws Giving Independence, a local organization that acquires dogs - many of them rescues - and trains them as service dogs to assist people with a variety of disabilities. That spectrum of training extends to the humans. Smith had to log 200 hours at the weekly Tuesday meetings at Heartland Dog Training Facility in Peoria before qualifying for her own service dog. But Smith went far beyond that requirement to find the dog that suits her best.

The many hours of training yields the right fit between the dog and future owner. Really, the owner’s initial personal preference has little sway in the process. The dog chooses the owner.

“He picked me more than anything else, simply because he listened to me,” Smith said. “And the dogs tend to find a good match.

Lincoln’s everyday assistance to Smith was honed during the weekly training hours at Heartland, where the dogs simulate situations that will help their future or current owners the most.

The training is spread between two classes that last for one hour. Each dog warms up by walking in clockwise and counter-clockwise circles while leashed by their owners or trainers. The dogs then proceed to stations that emulate a scenario at home, like turning on a light switch, and then rotate to the next station.

Obedience is expected but also rewarded frequently with compliments and treats. Lincoln does well at these stations, but Smith said that preaching consistency to him never ends. At a recent training, Lincoln struggled to open a closet door all the way, stopping short of actually opening it and then looking for a treat.

“He doesn’t get one for that,” Smith said.

But at the next station, opening a refrigerator door, Lincoln tugs open the door many times with ease. Smith said that he loses interest at times and wants attention - a poodle characteristic.

He has never shown aggressive behavior toward a person under Smith’s watch. Bunnies and squirrels are another story. When the two visit a college campus filled with active squirrels, Lincoln trembles. He used to be the same way around dogs until a visit to the zoo, Smith said. Coming face-to-face with a Siberian tiger and other much larger animals changed his perspective.

“The llama was challenging him,” Smith said. “Lincoln was freaked. His behavior with other dogs changed after that.”

In the last Tuesday meeting for PGI in February, a beloved dog graduated: Monty, a rescue from Alabama, will go to the Shepherd family from Bloomington, to tend to 10-year-old Faith Shepherd. People who attended both classes encircled the Shepherd family and Monty, congratulating both with hugs, applause and pictures.

Today is the day we hope on for all of our dogs,” said Donna Kosner, founder of PGI.

Lincoln went through the same ceremony last year, moving on from his foster family to Smith’s care. She wrote a heartfelt letter to Lincoln’s foster owner, expressing gratitude in allowing Lincoln to go to another owner. The new responsibility of owning a dog worried Smith, who had pets growing up in Pekin and Eureka but never had to care for them on her own. That feeling has dissipated over time as the experience of living on her own has improved. Even the simple detail of not having to carry around a Lifeline - because Lincoln can retrieve and return her phone - gives her great comfort.

“It’s an amazing feeling of security and completeness because I know he’s there,” Smith said.

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Source: (Peoria) Journal Star, https://bit.ly/1MdiAiO

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Information from: Journal Star, https://pjstar.com

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