Rue, a black Labrador, can open doors, turn on lights, pick up keys that may have fallen, take clothes out of the dryer — little things that make a world of difference for her owner, Jason Morgan, who lost the use of his legs in 1999.
The 3-year-old service dog was trained at a California center run by Canine Companions for Independence, a nonprofit that provides assistance dogs free of charge to people with disabilities.
Now that training for service dogs is coming to the Dallas area. On Monday, the nonprofit will open the Canine Companions Center in Irving in partnership with Baylor Scott & White Health.
At the center, dogs will go through 12 to 18 months of training. After that training, a round of applicants will visit the center for two weeks and learn how to work with the dogs. On Saturday, to start the cycle, four people received their service dogs, while another round of Labradors arrived to begin their training.
The Irving center was built through the efforts of District Judge Ed Kinkeade and a team at Baylor Scott & White. The idea came from Kinkeade, who often walked his dog, Bo, around Baylor Hospitals and saw how his dog made people happier.
“These are folks that we should be helping, and we can’t turn our backs to people that we can be helping,” Kinkeade said.
To qualify for the programs, applicants must meet certain criteria to ensure that they can care for the dog. Applicants must have a good living arrangement and the financial means to support a dog.
The dog comes free of charge to qualifying candidates, who are left to cover only the cost of travel to the center. Canine Companions will continue to make sure that the dog is healthy and that the owner-dog relationship is working.
Baylor Scott & White and Canine Companions for Independence collaborated to raise the money through donors and fundraising events to begin construction on the Irving facility. After the opening, Baylor Scott & White will continue to work with the nonprofit on philanthropic efforts.
The partnership should alleviate some of the pressure on the nonprofit and make it easier to focus on training dogs, said Paul Mundell, CEO of Canine Companions for Independence.
Morgan, a McKinney resident, went through the two-week training with his first service dog, Napal, and later with Rue. But he had to travel to California both times. Now Morgan participates in speaking events, sometimes on behalf of the nonprofit.
His Ram 1500 Lone Star truck is customized with a lift for his wheelchair and a step for Rue. Her bed is in the back seat. On a recent day, he took a trip to a nearby Market Street grocery store in McKinney. The manager knew Morgan and Rue by name. Customers and employees greeted Rue with smiles. Toddlers pointed in amazement.
“People didn’t even want to be near me, like I had leprosy or some sort of contagious disease,” Morgan said. “I was a very outgoing person… That was really upsetting. But as soon as I got my dog, it was a 180-degree turn. Everyone wanted to know about the dog and then they hear your story. That basically got me back out into the public.”
Morgan grew up in Dallas and joined the Air Force after a year at Abilene Christian University. He worked in the special operations command as a combat meteorologist. In June 1999, while on a counter-narcotics mission in Ecuador, Morgan was involved in a car accident that crushed his back.
“That was hard to digest, going from jumping out of planes in special ops to being bedridden,” he said. “I spent 31/2 of the next seven years in the hospital in total.”
About a year after his accident, he was divorced and raising three boys alone. That motivated him to get well. But things turned around for him 11 years later when he got his first service dog.
“Napal was really laid-back, but that’s what I needed at the time,” he said. “And our bond was instantaneous.” Napal died of cancer after four years. A few months later, Morgan got Rue, named after a Hunger Games character.
The dogs are trained to answer to dozens of commands, including “get,” “push,” and “jump.” They are taught that when they are wearing their blue and yellow vests, they are working and have to stay professional. But when the vest comes off, they are just like any other dog. Like Rue, who still loves to jump in the pool and wiggle around on her back.
“Dogs help build bridges between people,” said Mundell. “Unfortunately, many people with disabilities describe their experience as isolating, but dogs help overcome that.”