Hoku, a Labrador that helps people with physical impairment, keeps an eye on his owner, Dennis Killeen.

Dogs are big aid
to disabled

Specially bred canines retrieve
objects, switch on lights and
open doors for their masters

usan Luehrs has gone to the dogs to help disabled isle residents.

Luehrs runs Hawaii Fi-Do Service Dogs, training pups to assist people with disabilities other than blindness.

Luehrs is also a special-education teacher at Kahuku High and Intermediate School, and gets help with obedience training and socialization of the young dogs from seventh- to 12th-graders at the school.

"It's win-win for the dogs, the disabled community and seeing some amazing turnaround with some of our kids with responsibility, patience and dealing with frustration," said the Kahuku special ed teacher. "They're teaching the dogs, but they're learning how to be parents."

The specially bred dogs are much more than best friends for recipients Louise Funai and Dennis Kileen.

Jazzy, a part-Labrador a little more than a year old, has lived with Funai about two months. Funai, who has extreme difficulty hearing, said Jazzy has been trained to alert her to certain signals and sounds.

For example, she's never used an alarm clock because she can't hear it, but Jazzy hears the alarm, bounces on her bed and "puts a wet nose in my neck," telling her it's time to get up, she said.

Kileen has had 3-year-old Hoku, a purebred Labrador retriever, for more than eight months. She's the first Hawaii-born service dog "and the best," said Kileen, a severe diabetic with rheumatoid arthritis and crippling injuries from a truck accident.

Hoku retrieves objects, opens doors, switches on lights and even goes into the surf when Kileen is swimming "and lets me grab his collar to pull me up."

Luehrs said she and a friend got involved with therapy dogs in 1997 and became certified to work with them by the Delta Society on the mainland.

She began taking dogs to Kahuku High's special-education room and noticed "everybody was coming around for a fur fix -- therapists, regular-education kids and parents."

Luehrs said she became interested in service dogs after seeing one belonging to University of Hawaii oceanographer Richard Radtke, who has multiple sclerosis. "I was totally amazed they could train a dog to do what it was doing."

With a five-year wait on the mainland for service dogs, Luehrs promised to start a program here if the Lions Club would sponsor her training. The club agreed, and four years ago she went to the Assistance Dog Institute in Santa Rosa, Calif.

Luehrs said she struggled to set up Fi-Do, relying on grants, donations and help from friends. She said she went through 10 dogs, either purchased from breeders or donated, before her first success. The typical success rate is three of 10 dogs, she said.

Besides being responsive, alert and amiable, service dogs must have good hips for pulling wheelchairs, and they can't have "prey drives," which eliminates cat-chasing. About two years of intensive training are required to certify a service dog, she said.

Luehrs said she's always looking for donations, sponsors, puppy-raisers and "high-quality" dogs but not necessarily purebreds. She has placed three certified dogs with people and has six in training, three at her home near Waimea Bay and three in the community.

Finding people willing to work with a puppy for up to 18 months, then give it up, is the hardest part, she said. "This is pure love."

She said it costs $6,000 to $10,000 to train a service dog, which recipients receive for free. The Elks Emblem Club and the Hawaii Centers for Independent Living have helped to sponsor dogs, she said.

Her husband, Larry, and children, Lacy, 16, and Luc, 14, have helped her build the program, as well as a loyal volunteer, sixth-grader Eli Olsen, she said.

Kileen, who used to run a diving service in Kona, said he thought he'd never walk again after breaking his neck in the truck accident. He has an awkward gait but says he's "just glad to be alive. Having the dog really helped."

Hoku, trained for 90 functions, "puts his nose under my arm and pulls me up," Kileen said. He'll fetch the phone if it rings and pick up anything that drops, he said.

"I have a big thick rope on the refrigerator door. He'll pull it open, jump up and close it again."

Kileen takes Hoku to his job at an Oils of Aloha kiosk at Dole Plantation in Wahiawa, and "he's just a natural show-stopper." He said Hoku "is almost like more than a dog, like a reincarnated soul. He's one of the smartest dogs I've ever seen."

Kileen, 57, expects eventually to be in a wheelchair but said: "I already have my sidekick. He knows what to do for me."

Funai, who is "over 40," said she began talking to Luehrs late last year about a hearing-alert dog. Luehrs began training Jazzy, who had the necessary traits and personality, and Funai began working with her in obedience classes in May.

When they finish the certification process, they will be the first certified hearing team trained from Hawaii, Funai said.

She said Jazzy, who weighs about 40 pounds, runs to her and leaps in the air to signal her when someone knocks or rings her doorbell. "She can jump straight in the air, almost as tall as me. I'm barely 5 feet. That's amazing to see."

Funai said she outfitted Jazzy with a vest bearing a patch saying "Hawaii Fi-Do Service Dog" so they won't have any trouble getting into restaurants and other places.

"Having Jazzy makes people a little more sensitive to my needs," said Funai, who wears "two very powerful hearing aids." She said she's more relaxed and assured with Jazzy. "She's a great dog. She's Miss Aloha. She has to say aloha to everybody."

Jazzy also helps with her work as a fund-raising consultant for Myerberg Shain & Associates, Funai said. "She alerts me to what is happening in my environment."

For more information about Fi-Do Service Dogs, call 638-0200 or see


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