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Dolores Justus cuddles with Tandy, her service dog, who moved in with Justus to an assisted living nursing home in Hesston. (Travis Heying photo)
Service dog is a pioneer moving into nursing home
Tandy helps her owner remain independent and amazes other residents with her skills.
By Jenny Upchurch
The Wichita Eagle
When Dolores Justus wants a diet soda, she calls her dog. The golden retriever named Tandy tugs a string tied to the handle of a drawer. Once she has the drawer open, she picks up a can in her mouth and turns back to her owner, a 61-year-old woman in a wheelchair.
"Rise, Tandy, rise," Justus chirps, patting her lap. Tandy gently places her front paws on her owner's leg, then lifts up so the can is within reach.
As a service dog trained to assist the disabled, Tandy, who will turn 6 in March, has helped Justus, a retired schoolteacher, live on her own since 1995.
But now, the two are adapting to a new lifestyle. They moved in May to Schowalter Villa, a nursing home and retirement community in Hesston, making Tandy one of the first service dogs to accompany someone into a nursing home.
While the dog no longer makes the bed or puts away the groceries as she did in Justus' home, Tandy stays busy in her new home.
Ropes tied to the door handles let Tandy open and close the door to her small, sunny room at Schowalter. When the pair head outdoors, the dog tugs a coat off a hanger in the closet and brings it to Justus, then helps her put it on.
The twice-daily task that sets her feathery blond tail wagging, however, is pulling open a drawer that holds her dog food and dish. "I spill some on the floor usually," Justus said with a laugh. "But none of it stays there very long.
"In September, I counted and she had a 70-word vocabulary of commands she knew. And it's going up."
Tandy was trained by Support Dogs of St. Louis, among the first service-dog training groups when it was founded in 1981. She is the group's first dog to accompany an owner into a nursing home, says Bill Dahlkamp, a coordinator with the group. "We put a dog with someone for life," he said.
Tandy, named after actress Jessica Tandy, is Justus' second dog from Support Dogs.
Justus has been in a wheelchair since 1950 after contracting polio as a 12-year-old living in Wichita. A lack of mobility has never slowed her down. She graduated from South High and Emporia State University and taught first grade in Wellsville near Topeka for 22 years.
But post-polio syndrome forced her retirement from teaching in 1988, and a doctor warned she needed assistance at home.
Justus had watched a public television special on service dogs and decided to find a helping hand -- in the shape of four paws.
She applied at Support Dogs and went to St. Louis in 1990 to train with Asia, a 4-year-old golden retriever who became her first dog.
"She made my life so much easier. She was worth her weight in gold," Justus said. "I counted her jobs one time and she did 60 to 70 different things."
Asia stood up on the side of the washing machine and tugged out the heavy, wet clothes and towels for Justus to put in the dryer (then she pulled the warm, fluffy pieces out of the dryer to be folded.) Asia carried in grocery sacks with handles from the van in her mouth, then she brought each can and box to be put away in the cabinets.
One day, Justus' wheelchair got stuck on a door sill and the battery overheated, pouring out black smoke. "I'd only had Asia two or three weeks, and I thought, she'll never understand to get the phone. But I told her, 'Asia, go take phone,' and she went right in and brought the phone to me so I could call for help."
In June 1995, Asia died suddenly. Justus said, "I thought for a while, they'd have to lay me with her."
The grief was still sharp weeks later when Support Dogs called offering a second dog.
No, said Justus. Training would be in November, and she hated the cold. Also, the new dog was a golden retriever, a relative of Asia, and "I was afraid I would always compare them." No, Justus told the Support Dogs staff.
But Support Dogs kept calling, the trainer, the coordinator, even the president. Come in November, they told Justus, this is your dog.
She went. She saw. And Tandy conquered Justus' misgivings.
While Tandy occasionally looks amazingly like Asia, Justus said, their personalities could not be more different. Asia was "a consummate professional," her owner remembers, who did tasks her way and only her way. Tandy is "a wild, free spirit," who has never been happier than since they moved into the Hesston home together.
"All these people are her people, and this villa is her villa," Justus said.
Some residents and staff were opposed to the idea of a dog in the home when the idea was first broached, said Ron Litwiller, Schowalter's vice president of housing. "But if you were to ask those very same people today, I'm sure they would all welcome (Tandy) and the idea of another dog."
"Everyone likes to pet her. She never barks," he said, adding, "I think people find it amazing the things the dog can do ... If the dog wasn't present, certainly staff would have to increase the time they would spend doing tasks for Dolores."
While the nursing staff has to assist in the morning and evenings, Justus said, "in between, Tandy does pretty much everything for me."
"I wouldn't want to try to get along without her."
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