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A golden guide

[Times photos: Mike Pease]
Finney opens the refrigerator door for Hollie Sanford at her home in citrus Park.

Finney, a retriever, has finished his schooling as a service dog and now has his first job: working for Hollie Sanford.

By KATHERINE GAZELLA

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 19, 2000


CITRUS PARK -- For years, Hollie Sanford had to ask co-workers and family members for help when she dropped a book or pen. She often needed help to open heavy doors or throw away trash.

Sanford has juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, which has caused deformities in her hands that make it difficult for her to hold on to things. Her physical condition has not improved, but as of a few weeks ago, she no longer needs to ask people for help.

Sanford now has a constant companion to help her with all these difficult tasks. Finney, a golden retriever, is Sanford's new service dog.

On a recent day, Sanford sat in her electric wheelchair in her office. She dropped a pen on the floor and instructed Finney to retrieve it.

"Finney, stand! Get it! That's it. Hold!" she said, as Finney picked up the pen in his mouth and gave it to her.

"Good boy. That's a good boy, Finney," Sanford gushed, scratching the dog behind his ears.

Finney was trained by at-risk students at the Dorothy Thomas Exceptional Center in Lake Magdalene for the past year and a half. Along with four other dogs, including his brother Freeman, Finney graduated during a ceremony Tuesday night and officially began his life with Sanford.

photo
Sanford pets Finney at work.
The two first started working together a few weeks ago when Sanford began "boot camp" at the school. She and the other new dog owners learned more than 80 commands. The dogs are trained to pull manual wheelchairs, open refrigerator doors, turn on light switches and retrieve things for their owners.

Sanford, 27, keeps Finney at the Citrus Park home she shares with her parents. She also drives him to her office at Self Reliance Inc., where she helps other disabled people become more independent.

Sanford, who graduated from Gaither High School and the University of South Florida, was quite independent even before Finney came into her life. She drives her own van and goes to the movies by herself.

Already, though, Finney is helping her with some day-to-day challenges. He opens the refrigerator door by pulling a rope attached to the handle, turns on and off light switches and retrieves things for Sanford. She is trying to teach him to throw away garbage and press the automatic door buttons at her office.

"Every day I think it gets easier," Sanford said of her effort to teach him new skills.

She takes him to work and to a weekly service at the Town 'N Country Church of the Nazarene, and she plans to take him to the Veterans 24 movie theater. The doors at the theater are too heavy for her to push open, and she hopes Finney can help.

Finney follows Hollie Sanford out the door as they head home from work.

She hasn't had trouble taking Finney anywhere, but she has heard from some clients that some businesses don't allow service dogs. Most people understand that blind people use guide dogs, Sanford said, but service dogs are still relatively new among people with other disabilities.

"It is an education everywhere we go," she said.

To help with the education, Finney wears a small badge that identifies him as a service dog. It also instructs people not to pet him, although few can resist.

Finney is a good worker, but he also tends to be a little lazy. At Sanford's office, he catches regular naps under her desk. She has to encourage him to get up and play so his weight problem doesn't worsen.

Finney is not exactly petite. His veterinarian recently put the 103-pound dog on a diet, with the goal of losing 10 pounds.

"Not only am I a new dog owner, but the owner of a dog the size of a car," Sanford said during a speech at the graduation ceremony.

Sue Anderson, who took care of Finney at her home after school hours, spoke at the graduation ceremony about letting go of the dog.

She said that as sad as she was about giving him up, she was proud of the care Finney took with Sanford.

Finney was instructed to jump onto Sanford's lap during one of their first meetings. But he paused when he saw Sanford's small frame, Anderson said.

Finally, she said, Finney rested his head on Sanford's lap. He moved timidly and rested his head gently, careful not to cause her any harm.

-- Katherine Gazella can be reached at 226-3472 or gazella@sptimes.com.

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