Debb Johnson and larry

Tuesday , March 18, 2014 - 12:39 PM

The guy with the wavy black hair is Debb Johnson's new gym buddy.

He's also her walking buddy, shopping buddy and go-to-church buddy, all rolled into one. Lawrence V is his full name, but please, call him Larry.

The Labrador retriever/golden retriever cross teamed up with Johnson, a retired schoolteacher, just two months ago as her first service dog. And five days a week, the pair heads off for workouts at the gym.

"Here we go, buddy, let's go," says Johnson as she rolls out the front door of her Brigham City independent living center in her motorized wheelchair, with Larry at her side.

The dog watches Johnson's right knee, to gauge her chair's pace and adjust his step to hers. As the two arrive at the gym, Larry pushes the automatic door opener with his nose to let Johnson in.

As his owner exercises on a hand bike to strengthen her arm muscles, Larry lies quietly on the floor near her feet. When Johnson switches routines and starts using an inclined trampoline to toss a ball against -- bounce, bounce, bounce -- the dog watches calmly and makes no atttempt to grab the ball.

"He knows when it's his ball and my ball," Johnson explains.

From the moment this dog and human met in training at Canine Companions for Independence in Oceanside, Calif., they seemed to hit it off.

"He and I clicked," says Johnson, 58, who had polio as a child and learned about service dogs through a television program. "It's like he knew what I wanted and did it right away."

Larry picks up objects around the house for Johnson and is learning to open the front door by pulling on a tug strap attached to the lever-style handle. Eventually, he may also work on flipping light switches on and off.

A dog like Larry learns dozens of commands at school, but now it's a matter of applying that training to things that are useful in her own home, Johnson says.

Regular practice is important, she adds, to keep Larry's skills -- and her own -- sharp.

"My purpose is to take care of him and make sure he's happy and fine," she says. "And his purpose is to take care of me and make sure I'm happy and fine."

After Larry retrieves a dropped object, Johnson says "step" and the dog steps up on the footrests of her wheelchair to give her the item with his mouth. Or Johnson may say "lap" instead and Larry will then get up on her lap with his front paws to hand her the object -- or, sometimes, just to have a little snuggle.

All of the service dogs are raised as puppies by volunteers, but in Larry's case, those volunteers were inmates in a Colorado prison.

As Johnson sees it, her dog "has already done a mission before he came to me."

Although Johnson is grateful for all the ways her new dog can already help her, she also knows that Larry may be of even greater assistance in the future as she copes with post-polio syndrome, a degenerative condition that includes muscle weakness and atrophy.

"The idea was as my disease progresses and I lose different parts of mobility, Larry could learn to fill in with different parts as I go," she says.

An example would be for the dog to open and close drawers, she says, or "to pull off my socks and help me get dressed."

Right now, Johnson takes things one day at a time, but she adds, "When you know there's a backup system that can help you do things and let you live independently longer, then that is a great blessing. It gives you more peace of mind."

In the short time she's had Larry,Johnson says she's already discovered, "He is an amazing friend. ... It's totally different living alone than (it is) living with your best-friend dog."

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