Karen Kress has more confidence doing daily tasks and going out in public, thanks to her service dog Narnia.
“I have a lot more confidence about doing things that I had given up on,” Kress said. “Just having her with me in public kind of gives me more confidence.”
That included going outside this past winter.
Narnia loves the snow and walked next to Kress while she was on her scooter.
She began training with Narnia late last October before bringing her back to her home in Rural in early November.
Earlier this year, Kress and Narnia were among five new service and therapy dogs and their human partners honored at the annual graduation ceremony for Summit Assistance Dogs, in Belllevue, Washington.
Kress, who has lived with multiple sclerosis for more than 40 years, sees Narnia as a blessing among her challenges.
“One of my doctors suggested it. My rehab doctor in Chicago is always good at problem solving, offering beautiful solutions,” Kress said.
In August 2012, her doctor asked her if she liked dogs and would consider getting a service dog.
With her husband Hugh traveling several times a year, Kress said they were at the point in their lives of figuring out what to do when he was gone.
“When he’s gone, I have to do everything he does for me, plus what I do for myself. I get very fatigued,” she said.
When that happens, she is at risk of falling.
During the autumn of that year, they began to do their research, looking for credentialed agencies.
Her doctor was familiar with Canine Companions for Independence. Through online research, Kress found Summit Assistance Dogs.
“Summit and Canine don’t charge for the dogs. Twenty-thousand dollars to $50,000 is the cost to train from puppy to placement. The puppy raisers are volunteers,” Kress said.
Summit Assistance Dogs is located in Anacortes, a small community in Washington.
The name of the community jumped out at Kress, because it is where her sister lives.
Kress applied, in spite of knowing almost all of their dogs are placed in the northwestern part of the country.
The nonprofit was willing to let Kress apply, because she and Hugh would cover their travel costs to get there and be able to stay with Kress’ sister.
Kress had her initial assessment in February 2013.
She worked with three dogs which had already been placed, and they interviewed her about her needs and preference.
“They say there are no perfect handlers and service dogs, but there are perfect matches,” Kress said.
She found that to be the case with Narnia.
Last summer, Kress emailed Summit Assistance Dogs, letting them know about plans to visit the area in July.
“I was told they did not anticipate having a match for me that calendar year, in 2014,” she said. “But then they had a new affiliation with Guide Dogs for the Blind. Narnia was one of four they got from Guide Dogs for the Blind.”
Kress received an email from Summit Assistance Dogs, letting her know they had a dog which could be “recareered” as a service dog.
Narnia has a more cautious temperament, which was not a good fit for being a guide dog.
“The puppy raiser could have kept her but made the choice to give her to Summit. I’m so grateful,” Kress said.
After Kress arrived in Washington, she went there on a Friday and worked with Narnia for about two hours.
“For me, it was just love at first sight,” Kress said. “They had said they would let me know by Monday, but they called me on Sunday and said we were a match. I cried.”
That news was followed by waiting to set a team training date.
Last fall’s training included daily quizzes to prepare Kress for a written test, field trips to various places in the community like the public library and a public access test in a grocery store.
The training included safety in parking lots, so Kress learned how to make the transfer from having Narnia on a leash to getting her in the car.
“Behavior shaping by positive reinforcement is how they are trained,” Kress said.
Narnia has to focus, so Kress tries not to do too many reps with her when they are working.
In public, Narnia wears her green vest and a gentle leader.
“It’s not a muzzle,” Kress said. “She can open her mouth, yawn, eat with it on. It helps her to focus, concentrate, stay on task.”
Kress said service dogs are sort of a novelty around here, and as a result, they printed business cards about Narnia to hand out to people who ask about her.
In public, people should ask if they may pet Narnia.
Then, Kress will do a brief meet and greet with them.
Her husband also applied for a grant through Thrivent so they may do demonstrations and help build awareness about service dogs.
They also educate people about Summit Assistance Dogs, which raises funds to cover its costs.
Kress now tells family and friends to make a donation in her name to the nonprofit instead of giving her gifts.
Narnia helps Kress with many tasks, including giving Kress each item of her clothing, opening and shutting drawers and retrieving the phone for her.
“Now that I have her, she’s doing a lot of things for me that would make me tired. That’s why she’s so important to me,” Kress said.
During their first year together, evaluations take place every three months to make sure it is the right match.
Narnia is technically not hers until after that year.
Kress describes her relationship with Narnia as rewarding and one which has excelled her expectations.
“Yes, she helps me with tasks, but she loves me. She’s very forgiving,” Kress said.
If she is slow to do something or drops an item, she looks into Narnia’s eyes and immediately feels better.
“In the past, I struggled with things I could not do or did slowly,” she said. “When Narnia looks at me with love in her eyes, I feel better. It’s an emotional change. That benefit, I think, is true for lots of people with disabilities. You wish you were different, and it’s hard to like that part of yourself. The way she looks at me makes me change my attitude about myself.”
She said “Narnia” is a great name for her service dog.
“It’s magical for me,” Kress said. “She truly is God’s grace.”
Visit www.summitdogs.org to learn more about Summit Assistance Dogs.