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Four-legged heroes

Service dogs provide much more than companionship

Maurice, a golden-Labrador mix, gives Jim Warner lots of snuggles at home. Photo: Tim Webb
Maurice gets in and out of Jim’s van. Photo: Tim Webb
Maurice is comfortable at home on top of Jim’s bed. Photo: Tim Webb
Jim says he and Maurice are “inseparable.” Photo: Tim Webb
Maurice was trained by Canine Companions for Independence, based in California. Photo: Tim Webb
Maurice opens a door for Jim. Maurice can also turn light switches on and off at Jim’s command. Photo: Tim Webb
Maurice picks up Jim’s smartphone and safely hands it back. Photo: Tim Webb

When Jim Warner wakes in the morning, Maurice bounds onto the bed, landing on all fours. “He’ll wrestle me,” Jim says. Later in the day, he’ll trot to the side of Jim’s wheelchair and offer him the fabric dragon, Maurice’s favorite toy. When playtime is over, Jim gives Maurice the command, “Basket.” That signals it’s time for the dog to return his toys to the basket. 

“You know how when you tell a little kid that it’s time to put toys away?” says Jim, a consumer-member of Fleming-Mason Energy. “They’ll say, ‘Do I really have to?’ Well, that’s the kind of look Maurice gives me when I give him the basket command.” 

Those are glimpses of the playful side of a working dog. But when Maurice is in public, people won’t see that side of him—and that’s how it should be. He wears a service dog vest. “People will come up to me and say, ‘Aww, he’s so cute. May I pat him?’” says Jim. “They don’t realize these service dogs are working.” 

Jim was born with a spinal defect that prevents him from walking and limits his upper body motion. He’s used a wheelchair for as long as he can remember. Jim, who has always had a passion for learning, was drawn into the world of computers and emerged with a strong skill set, doing computer repairs, building systems, designing websites and more. 

Dad and a dog 

Jim’s father, the late Bob Warner, introduced him to photo-editing software, which Jim used to do photo restoration. Bob was chief photographer for the The Ledger Independent newspaper in Maysville. As Jim recalls, his dad did the photography for a 1998 Ledger article on dog trainers. From that photo shoot, Bob brought home the idea that a service dog might be good for his son. It wouldn’t take long for that idea to come to fruition. 

Within a couple months, the Warner family attended a church picnic on a farm where a young black Labrador retriever named Jasper frolicked among the guests. When Jim, then 16, met Jasper, the connection was immediate. Before the picnic was over, the farmer decided to give Jasper to Jim. 

Bob contacted a group of disabled veterans in Ohio who trained service dogs. The trainers took in Jasper and worked with him for several months. Then the Warner family drove north to Mount Healthy, Ohio. With the trainers supervising, Jim and Jasper toured stores in Mount Healthy. 

“It was different,” says Jim. “That was my first time in a public place with a dog.” Jasper had a leather harness with a handle on top. Jim could hold the handle and Jasper would pull his wheelchair. Jasper would pick up dropped objects and help Jim with a variety of chores. 

Tragedy and time 

In 2006, tragedy hit the Warner family. Bob Warner died in a car crash, and Jasper died that year from throat cancer. 

At the time, the idea of a new dog to replace Jasper didn’t sit well with Jim. “My mom and I had talked about getting another dog,” he says, “but I wasn’t ready for it emotionally.” 

Meanwhile, he got a van customized to his needs and learned to drive. He took a job that he held for eight years as assistant to Maysville’s public works director. “He did a tremendous job,” says Bentley Applegate, a superintendent with the city’s public works department. “He’s real outgoing and was well-liked. Quite the comedian. You never had a dull moment when Jim was around.” 

In 2013, Jim warmed to the idea of finding a new service dog. His online research led him to Canine Companions for Independence, a national leader in service dog breeding, training and placement. 

A new companion 

Canine Companions for Independence, based in California, was founded in 1975 in a garage. It was the first organization in the United States to provide assistance dogs for people with disabilities other than blindness. The organization has expanded with six regional chapters that serve the U.S. 

“We provide dogs free of charge,” says Molly Schultz, spokesperson with the North Central Region chapter, which covers the Midwest, including Kentucky. “Each dog is valued at $50,000,” she says. 

With decades of breeding, training and research, Canine Companions found that the two best breeds for their service dogs are Labrador retrievers and golden retrievers, or a mix of the two. They love the work and are the best at it, says Schultz. By 2 years old, each new service dog has been trained in over 40 commands and is ready to be matched with a person. 

After a lengthy application, Jim was approved to receive a service dog. That put him on a waiting list for about two years. In November 2017, Jim and his mother, Julie, traveled to Delaware, Ohio, for the two-week-long team training, during which dogs are matched with clients. 

Jim met Maurice, a golden-Lab mix. “For the first three days,” says Jim, “they were rotating different dogs to different people. I was so focused on learning commands and the training that I couldn’t see it, but my mom says she saw right away that Maurice was the one for me.” 

After the training, Maurice climbed into the van, and the Warners drove home with him to the small rural town of Ewing in Fleming County. Now, when Jim drives somewhere, does his freelance computer work, preaches gospel at youth ministry, goes shopping or moves around the house, Maurice is there by his side, or nearby. With simple commands, Maurice will aid Jim in tasks like taking off his pants, turning light switches on and off, opening and closing doors, fetching objects and more. 

“We’re inseparable,” says Jim. “He’s just like a family member.” And that’s a good thing: the better the bond, he says, the better they work together. 

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