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.

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