Man's best friend is also a lifeline
For Joseph and Peggy Karwacki of Barrie, life as they knew it would never be the same after May 16, 2004. Joseph, a CN Railway employee, survived being pulled under a rail car while working on the train. He lost both legs in the accident. With one leg amputated below the knee and the other above the knee, the road to recovery has been long and arduous. The simplest of tasks taken for granted by those who are not disabled are the very challenges Karwacki now faces on a daily basis. Picking up a fallen pen could lead to disaster for Karwacki, who still spends a good portion of his day in a specially-equipped wheelchair.
Radar, a three-year-old golden retriever trained by C.O.P.E. (Canine Opportunity People Empowerment), is Karwacki's service dog and best friend, playing a very important role in the Karwacki household.
Through her employment at Paulmac's Pet Food Plus Pets store in Barrie, Peggy had come to know one of the regular customers who brought a C.O.P.E. dog into the store as part of its training program. A C.O.P.E. dog's handler is responsible for teaching the dog socialization and commands – all 90 of them. What Peggy didn't know, was that one day that customer would be the resource and link to Radar. "After Joe's accident, we researched organizations about their service dogs. With other organizations, you have to return the dog to the organization [when it retires]. With Radar, C.O.P.E., we are allowed to keep him."
It takes over one year of intense training to prepare a public access dog for duty before joining up with its owner. Once matched, the owner and the dog spend time bonding and training together. And so after the approximate cost of $1,000, plus the partial cost of training sessions and a contribution from CN, Radar officially became the Karwackis' newest family member and assistant.
"When Radar's wearing his C.O.P.E. vest, he knows he's on duty," Peggy explains. "His name definitely suits him. He's very focused when he's on duty. When he's off duty he's very much a puppy and everyone is allowed to interact with him. Even when off duty, he's still very focused on Joe's needs. Some of those needs include picking up objects that have fallen to the floor, turning off light switches, opening cupboard doors, and, most importantly, getting Karwacki out of a potentially dangerous situation. Part of Radar's $22,000 training included pull straps to assist in righting a tipped wheelchair and learning how to pull an alarm if Karwacki is recognized by Radar to be unconscious.
Eager to start work, with tail wagging, Radar gently grasped the neck of a pop bottle that tipped off the cupboard shelf, handing it to Karwacki. Given a generous pat and a verbal thank you, in a relationship of love plus duty, for Karwacki and Radar, the learning curve continues as they C.O.P.E. together.