In August, Kim Lauria found herself sporting an extra 100 pounds in the form of a Labrador Retriever named Dave.
“I hadn’t thought about getting a service dog before but now there’s this whole world that I never thought would be available to me again,” she said.
Lauria, a Newport News native, is one of the many who have benefited from service dogs trained by Service Dogs of Virginia. When she was diagnosed five years ago with Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome, a form of Dysautonomia, she started experiencing dizziness, fainting and blackouts.
Dave was specially trained to help Lauria with her balance if she gets dizzy or by helping to prop her legs to improve circulation. As a dog from Service Dogs of Virginia, Dave received the expert training of more than 700 hours that can cost around $40,000.
The nonprofit shoulders all of the costs to help place clients with the best possible owners, said director of development, Sally Day.
Service Dogs of Virginia starts with a litter of puppies as young as 8 weeks old and studies them to see which might be best for life as a service animal.
“It’s innate in puppies that there are certain things that matter to them,” Day said. “You can tell if a relationship with a person is important to them even at 8 to 10 weeks of age.”
Day said it is the relationships with their owner that also make a huge impact on a person’s well-being because for a lot of individuals, their disabilities can contribute to an isolated lifestyle.
For Lauria, it’s her connection with Dave that helped pull her out of a depression years after her original diagnosis. Not only does Dave monitor Lauria for any signs of distress, but he provides a sense of companionship that can’t be compared to anything else, she said.
“Dave didn’t just give me my independence back, he gave me unconditional and non-judgmental love,” Lauria said. “He is this four-legged furry companion that’s always there with kisses and there to help.”
Lauria has had regular pets in the past, but she said the connection with a service animal is something different.
“You literally rely on them for your life,” she said. “Dave is my 911.”
Different service dogs are trained for different areas of need, Day said. After a few months in the program, trainers are able to tell from a dog’s personality which area of need they would best serve. For example, Day said, a dog with a calmer demeanor would be better for a client with autistic needs but an excited dog would be better for a diabetic because the dog would have to constantly be at attention.
The dogs take about two years to complete their training, at the end of which the client comes in for a two-week “transition camp.”
During the camp, clients and dogs learn how to form partnership and trust through a series of intense exercises, Lauria said.
It is that serious dedication to training and pairing that make Service Dogs of Virginia one of only two organizations in the state accredited by Assistance Dogs International, a global program that assists nonprofits with training and placing service animals.
Day said the accreditation is important because it gives the nonprofit a standard.
“There are non-accredited places that say they train service dogs, but you don’t know what they’re really doing or if they’re going to make pairings that work,” she said.
And for clients like Lauria, it’s all about the pairing.
“I don’t know that anybody could say what a dog feels towards its owner,” she said. “But I know I would be devastated if I didn’t have Dave. He’s changed my life.”