IN DOG WE TRUST
ONE ORGANIZATION HELPS INDIVIDUALS GET BACK ON THEIR FEET BY GIVING THEM FOUR MORE.
The bond between service animals from Hawaii Fi-Do and the individuals who own them is transformative. Editor Lisa Yamada takes a look at how the first service dog training organization in the state is helping individuals get back on their feet.
When Charlene Hasebe rises from her wheelchair, Puff, a 10-year-old Labradoodle, stares inquisitively at her owner, cocking her head slightly as if to ask, “Everything alright?” As Hasebe wobbles across the room, the canine’s eyes never stray from her owner, watching her as a mother would watch her child. For centuries, domesticated dogs have used eye contact to bond with their owners, and it’s a skill that puppies hone early in their training to become service dogs at Hawaii Fi-do.
Founded in 1999 by Susan Luehrs, Hawaii Fi-do is a nonprofit organization that matches service dogs with those facing the daily challenges of living with a psychiatric or physical disability, like Hasebe, who was born with cerebellar ataxia, a disorder that affects the brain’s ability to control muscle coordination and gait. “When she sees me wiggling back and forth, swaying, she wants to help me, but I shoo her away,” Hasebe says of Puff, who helps her owner to retrieve items and open drawers. “She’s a small dog, and I could break her hip.” Hasebe has been living on her own in a quaint Whitmore Village apartment in Wahiawā since 1995. “Without her help, I would be living in an institution,” Hasebe says. “With her, I feel more confident. … I feel like I can meet the public. I may be in a chair, but I can still go out.”
That Hasebe has been able to stay on her own for so long is thanks, in part, to her constant canine companion, who also helps Hasebe stay active. Caring for Puff—trimming her hair, cutting her nails, brushing her teeth—helps strengthen the muscles in Hasebe’s hands, a particular problem area for the 64-year-old, but it’s the Labradoodle’s natural ability to uplift others that has bolstered Hasebe’s spirit the most. “When people see her, they are so happy,” exclaims Hasebe, who serves as a trained volunteer for Hawaii Fi-do, offering therapeutic wellness visits at hospitals and care homes around O‘ahu. On Tuesdays, she and Puff visit seniors at assisted living facility The Plaza at Mililani; Fridays, they make the rounds at the hospice center in Wahiawa General Hospital; and every second Wednesday, the pair heads out to Kahuku Hospital. “We had this lady, and she was a grouchy lady,” Hasebe recalls. “She couldn’t connect with Puff. But we kept going and going, then finally one day, she just accepted
Puff. … She would make Puff go on her bed, and she taught Puff how to honi honi her—that means kiss.”
Despite her disability, Hasebe considers herself lucky. “Am I going to ask, ‘How come God made me this way?’” she says. “If I’m sad and depressed, what am I going to do about it? So I say, ‘Come on Puff, let’s go out.’”
The bond between dog and human companions is a strong one—science has proven this fact with complex studies that demonstrate the presence of elevated levels of oxytocin, a hormone that promotes social bonding, in both canines and keepers when they interact. But one only has to observe a rollicking canine greeting its master after periods of absence both long and short to understand the deep impact a dog can make on a person’s life. Susan Luehrs observed this firsthand in 1999, while working as a special education teacher at Kahuku High School, where she began bringing therapy dogs into the classroom to engage the students. Luehrs had started a vocational program called the Youth Trainers Project, in which at-risk youth learned pre-employment skills while helping to train, groom, and socialize young dogs that were in training. It was eye opening for her. “When the kids in the wheelchairs went out in the schoolyard with the dog, people came and talked to them,” she says. “It wasn’t just the adults, it was the football guys, the cheerleaders, the custodians.” Dogs, Luehrs came to realize, fostered relationships. They were hooks, motivators, and wellsprings of unconditional love.
Before Hawaii Fi-do, service dogs were procured from the mainland—a lengthy process that involved complex quarantine procedures. Guided by the late Eloise Monsarrat, who developed the Human Animal Bond Program in collaboration with the American Red Cross at Tripler Army Medical Center, Luehrs set out in 1999 to build what was, at the time, the only service dog training organization in the state. Two years later, Hawaii Fi-do became a member of Assistance Dogs International—which sets the standards of the assistance dog industry in North America, Asia, Europe, and Australia— and in 2005, Hawaii Fi-do became the first organization in Hawai‘i to become accredited (the other accredited program is on Maui).
Today, at its kennel facility located on the North Shore, Hawaii Fi-do breeds the Labrador retriever and Australian Labradoodle puppies that will one day become accredited assistance animals. Training for the service dogs, which are different from therapy or emotionalsupport dogs, begins when the canines are just three days old. Once they are about 3 months, the pooches move in with puppy raisers, which Luehrs calls the “heart and soul of the organization,” who ready the pups for lives of service. During the next two years, these accredited volunteers will train the dogs to recognize upwards of 90 commands.
Beneficiaries of Hawaii Fi-do have included individuals with a wide array of needs, from those with hearing disabilities to veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder to young adults facing cancer. Luehrs estimates that about 80 dogs have been placed since the organization’s inception 16 years ago. The process is slowgoing and the need is great—the wait time to receive a dog is currently two years. It’s
A smart, kind, intuitive animal such as this— which is not any animal, but an extension of your soul—becomes a holy presence, becomes a sacred presence that looks at you, witnesses you.
also costly: The process of breeding, raising, and training a dog to become certified can total anywhere from $16,000 to $20,000. Despite this expense, the privately funded organization provides its dogs free of charge.
“This is life-changing work,” says Nayer Taheri, who was given a service dog in 2014. “Here is this gift that comes into my life and improves my life-quality emotionally, spiritually, physically. It brings tears to my eyes.”
It was raining the day Nayer Taheri first met her service companion, Wren, then a small, 3-month-old white Labradoodle, on the grounds of Hawaii Fi-do’s outdoor North Shore kennel. As Taheri kneeled in the dirt on all fours, a Persian proverb she had once heard came to mind: “There are thousands of ways to kneel down and kiss the ground.” As she bent to pick up the young puppy, she began to see the world from the dog’s point of view: “Playfulness, gratefulness, sense of trust … When I look from her eyes, [I see] the green of the grass and hear the chirp of the birds differently—and you are grateful for it,” she reflects.
For years, Taheri had battled debilitating anxiety attacks, bouts of vertigo, and spells of depression that left her housebound. Taheri had fled to the United States in 1994 with her son, Daniel, who was 3 at the time, to escape the Islamic Republic of Iran’s oppressive regime. Taheri’s life in Iran had been mired in brutality. After the Iranian Revolution of 1979, Taheri recalls, everything changed in an instant. Supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini ruled according to Sharī‘ah, or Islamic law based on the Qur’an, whereby, according to Taheri, social constructions shifted, and human rights for women, children, and minorities disappeared. Then, war. From 1980 to 1988, tens of thousands of Iranians were killed during the Iran-iraq War (some estimates place the death toll as high as a million). “Upon that, there was political upheaval,” Taheri says. “So you live based on that, and you are aware that you are just surviving, like a fish, you learn to find a way out.”
Upon arriving in the United States, in her search to mend her soul after the trauma of her past, Taheri found healing through ministry, becoming a Unitarian Universalist chaplain in 2006. It was during Taheri’s ordination assessment that she met fellow chaplain Cynthia Kane. The two fell in love, were married, and gave birth to two children, Asher and Ari. In 2013, when Kane received orders to move to the Marine Corps Base in Kāne‘ohe, her family followed. Despite Taheri’s strong family life and her attempts to make peace with who she was, her infirmities prevailed. A panic attack left her frozen in the cereal aisle at the commissary for over an hour, disassociated from reality and unable to move until Kane came to retrieve her; a fainting spell left Taheri with a mild concussion and a sprained shoulder.
A few months after arriving to Hawai‘i, Taheri initially dropped in on Hawaii Fi-do on the suggestion of Kane, who had heard about the service dog program at work and thought her spouse might benefit from being around the dogs. “Little did we know,” Kane says, “that she was then going to become a candidate.” Taheri agreed to pay a visit to the center, mostly because she liked the idea of the long drive to the North Shore. There, she listened to a veteran share about living through an explosion in the war. His story resembled her own in many ways, and she began to feel that familiar sense of panic welling up inside her. “After living a long time with the symptoms, you become stoic and try to pretend everything’s okay, even though deep inside everything is shattering,” she says. The veteran’s dog, which was sitting across from her, sensing something amiss, stood up, walked over, and put her face in Taheri’s lap. “It just brought so much comfort at that moment,” she recalls.
Taheri began helping out around the kennel, and when she laid eyes on Wren that day in the rain, an instant connection was made. “It was clear that they got each other, just like spouses do,” Kane recalls of Taheri and Wren, who grew to be a striking Labradoodle with a broad chest and friendly face. “There’s a shorthand in an intimate companionship—there’s this kind of knowing that goes beyond words, and I could tell that the two of them were completely in connection with one another.”
Today, Taheri calls Wren the “chaplain to the chaplains,” providing emotional and physical support to the entire family. “She just is so very smart that she learns about what pleases you, what displeases you, what triggers you—she knows,” Taheri says. “I don’t know how she has this information, but she is so sensitive that she learns very fast.” Wren is so intuitive, in fact, that she can anticipate when an attack might hit, guiding Taheri to a quiet corner or licking her hand until the panic subsides. Just recently, Taheri was holding their newborn, Ari, when a dizzy spell hit and she began to fall backward. “[Wren]
is behind me without me even noticing,” Taheri says. “She has her paws on the bed, with the chest protecting me.”
Taheri continues, explaining that, “A smart, kind, intuitive animal such as this— which is not any animal, but an extension of your soul—becomes a holy presence, becomes a sacred presence that looks at you, witnesses you. And in that image, in that mirror, you allow yourself the possibilities of other thinking. … Maybe if I think this way with more compassion and forgiving … my view toward the past is going to change.”
Today, Taheri believes that Wren has helped her to start trusting again. “I make eye contact, I smile more, I’m more physically active,” says Taheri, who takes Wren to the beach for exercise. “When we are coming back up the dunes … I just need a little bit of help, so I just say, ‘pull,’ and she goes with all the might and gives me a little bit of strength to get on my knees.”
“With her, I feel more confident. I feel like I can meet the public. I may be in a chair, but I can
still go out,” Charlene Hasebe says of her 10-year-old Labradoodle, Puff.
Young Labradoodles train with volunteer puppy raisers for two years before becoming service dogs.
“She is an extension of my soul,” says Nayer Taheri, shown right, of Wren, the Labradoodle service companion that helps her overcome anxiety, vertigo, and depression. The two are shown here with
Taheri’s spouse, Cynthia Kane, and their two children, Asher and Ari.
Despite the lengthy and costly process to train a service dog, Hawaii Fi-do provides
its canine companions to those in need free of charge.
Science has proven the existence of a chemical bond between dog and human companions, but you only have to
observe canine and keeper interact to understand the impact a dog can make on a person’s life.