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things that work

Rebekah Garriock's assistance dog Piper, a 4-year-old black labrador retriever, presses a switch to open an automatic door as she returns to her job at Port Metro Vancouver after taking a walk in Vancouver, B.C., on Thursday December 13, 2012.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

In the third of a 12-day series, we profile a B.C. program, policy or organization that's having a positive impact, against the odds.

Rebekah Garriock can see.

She can hear.

And although she uses a wheelchair, it's not immediately apparent why she needs Piper, a four-year-old Labrador, which is Ms. Garriock's assistance dog.

Ms. Garriock has a simple answer.

"Independence," she responds, when asked for the biggest difference the dog makes to her life. "Letting me go out and not worry about – if I drop my purse. Or if I drop my keys."

For Ms. Garriock – whose mobility is limited as a result of complications resulting from viral meningitis she contracted as an infant – Piper is an integral part of her life, a four-legged companion she affectionately calls her "ball and chain" because the two are always together. If Ms. Garriock drops her keys, Piper picks them up. The dog can press buttons, carry and hold items or retrieve them from a fridge or counter. Piper knows about 75 different commands and is attuned to Ms. Garriock's voice; praise comes in a high-pitched croon familiar to anyone who's ever cooed at a baby.

For the Burnaby-based Pacific Assistance Dogs Society, or PADS, Ms. Garriock and Piper are one of dozens of human-canine partnerships the group has co-ordinated since it was launched in 1987 as the Western Handi and Hearing Dogs Society. Guide dogs for the blind have been trained formally for more than 70 years; training dogs to help people with physical and mental-health disabilities has evolved over the past few decades. PADS has trained nearly 600 dogs, 86 of which are now paired with clients in Western Canada.

The process of matching dog and client is time-consuming and expensive. PADS estimates it costs about $30,000 to raise, train and place a dog. Clients pay a $50 registration fee and an additional $250 when they get a dog.

"It's not a first-come, first-serve basis," PADS executive director Laura Watamanuk said. "It's really important that the dog is a match to both personality and lifestyle to make sure you get a successful team."

Some dogs that go through training don't make the cut, having been found to lack the work drive required for a service dog or to possess some quirk such as not liking the taste of metal, which makes them unlikely to pick up, say, keys.

PADS places some of those animals as pets, often to homes where children have a developmental or physical disability; others become therapy animals, or what PADS calls Canine Assisted Intervention dogs, which work in various settings with their handlers.

One, named Poppy, is a fixture at Canuck Place, a hospice and palliative-care centre for sick children and their families. Another frequents the Dr. Peter Centre downtown. Still others drop in to hospitals or rehab clinics, where they engage in activities such as stroke rehabilitation by, for example, nudging a ball that a patient has to squeeze to release a treat.

It's remarkable to see how much harder people will work on such a task when there's a dog involved, Ms. Watamanuk said.

PADS runs its own breeding program and relies on a network of full- and part-time puppy raisers and trainers. It's an accredited group and dogs are in demand, but funds are tight. Ms. Watamanuk is applying for grants she hopes will allow the group to develop a training program for dogs rescued from shelters.

The payoff, she says, comes in matching dog and client and seeing both thrive.

As in most relationships, heartache is part of the package. Dogs age quickly. Ms. Garriock, now 32, is on her second.

Her first, Hudson, was a big, amiable Lab she with which she was paired from the age of 20 and stuck with her through her studies at Capilano University, where he got a medal placed around his neck when Ms. Garriock rolled across the stage to receive her degree in business administration.

When he was 10 and going blind, it was time for Hudson to retire. Ms. Garriock felt it was the right thing to do but was worried she might not bond with another dog in the same way. Hudson has been adopted and now lives with close friends of Rebekah's.

When she met Piper, those doubts disappeared, though the two dogs were markedly different. With Hudson, Ms. Garriock relied more on leash corrections; with Piper, she uses her voice and eyes.

"Piper is all about praise," Ms. Garriock said. "Hudson was all about work. She wants to look me in the eye and say, 'Did I do a good job?' She wants to please. She wants to do everything possible to help me."

Ms. Garriock is currently working at Port Metro Vancouver, through an accessibility program that provides four months of on-the-job training for people with disabilities. Finding work has been a slog; she's grown accustomed to awkward silence when she asks whether a position could accommodate a service dog and her wheelchair.

The port has run its accessibility program for more than a decade but this is the first time an employee has come with a dog, human-resources director Sandi Case said. Not surprisingly, the pair have been a hit.

"Piper is a delight and Rebekah has been a wonderful person to have as part of our team," Ms. Case said. "An animal in the workplace overall is a very positive experience and this one even more so. People see the work that Piper does for Rebekah every day and it's really inspirational."

Ms. Garriock, who lives with family in North Vancouver, has only praise for PADS, saying she can't imagine her life without Piper's help and company.

"Dogs have powerful ways of being in people's lives," Ms. Garriock said. "Just coming into work, I have to roll from the SeaBus here every day. That's two or three blocks. Just to have Piper with me, I feel so much safer. If I fell, I know she would bark and wait with me and get help.

"The elevator button in the Seabus, I can't reach – she gets it for me. Which is so fabulous – because it's one less thing I have to ask for help with."