BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Most of us know about rescuing dogs from the shelter. But few of us realize that sometimes these castoff canines rescue people. When Diana Theobold lost a foot in a rock climbing accident, she withdrew from society. Ex-Marine Kalani Cruetzburg fell into a paralyzing depression when he left the service. Both of them were saved by shelter dogs.
Their story, and others like them, is the subject of Animal Planet’s series, “Rescue Dog to Super Dog,” where one creature who’s hit rock bottom is salvaged by the another – whether he has four legs or two.
The trick to matching the human with his new best friend is temperament, say the show’s dog trainers, Laura London and Nate Schoemer.
“You can find so many amazing dogs in shelters, however if you need one to perform a specific task, there are certain characteristics they need to have,” says Schoemer, who became an instructor at the dog training school where he studied for two years.
“For example, if the dog is really fearful and is hiding in the back of the kennel, we can take that dog and work with it. But it’s going to take months and months just to rebuild that dog’s confidence. Since we didn’t have that time, we had to look at the dogs that were coming to the front, that would interact with us, that were interested in people, that were willing to work for food, that were good around other dogs.”
After individual training, each dog is introduced to his new charge.
Theobold, who tumbled 40 feet in her fall, must navigate through the day on one leg. Her little rescue dog, Morrison, has proved invaluable in helping her, she says.
“A lot of my struggles are just mental. Just having the energy to get through the day and to get through my daily tasks … I still live in the same apartment I lived in before I lost my leg, so I have an absurdly long hallway. And I live on the top floor,” she says.
“It’s an absurdly slow elevator, and so I tend to burn a lot of my energy before I even get to my car. So one of the big things that Morrison helps with is he’s able to just jet down the hallway and go and hit that elevator button. So by the time I’m done limping over there, the elevator is there and he’s ready to go.”
Morrison can also switch off the lights and fetch Theobold’s shoes – a task even the trainers thought too complex for him.
Cruetzburg says that Bas, his Golden-Retriever-Rottweiler mix, helps him seize the day. “My disabilities are up here,” he says, tapping his head.
“And who am I to go out there and say that I deserve a service dog or need a service dog? I can walk and I can do all these things. Once I got past that, and Bas was brought into my life, it was clearly evident that there are a lot of things about me that he helps address,” he says.
“There was a huge void in my heart, once I transitioned out of the Marine Corps, that I struggled with. And he fills that void. My depression? I’ll stay at home like a hermit for days, and I will not leave. I don’t have that option anymore. Bas gets me out of the house. Bas gives me a mission.”
It’s not only the dogs that are trained, says London, who has been involved in dog training for 12 years. The disabled person must work through what she calls “the journey.”
“The most motivating thing about my job is teaching people, giving them information and letting them be better than they were yesterday (with their dogs) because they know more,” says London.
“I had a Pomeranian named Hope, and she was rescued from a puppy mill. She was a hot mess. She’d been bred several times, she was shy, she’d lie at the bottom of her cage most of the time. In the beginning, this woman said, ‘I want this to be my service dog.’ I said, ‘That’s never going to happen.’ The only person who could touch her was her owner.
“She said, ‘I’m dedicated to doing this.’ It took us years. Hope wouldn’t let me brush her. She wouldn’t let me touch her. Then you know what? After six months she did. And she passed her canine good-citizenship test. Then she passed her therapy dog test.
“Her owner had a pacemaker, and Hope could tell her when her battery was running low. Hope comes up and pokes her side. So now Hope is this amazing dog who’s come from terrified to being life-saving for her mother. When you step back and you realize the impact that you can have on people’s lives, it’s humbling.”