On a bright summer morning in Alpharetta, Ga., Jennifer Arnold watches intently from her porch as six disabled people—five in wheelchairs—tentatively make their way to her door. Among them is Amanda Elmore, 13, a North Carolina cheerleader who was paralyzed last winter in an ATV accident; Ben Murphy, 21, who was left a quadriplegic after a car wreck two years ago; and Robin Grogan, 35, who has suffered daily seizures following five operations on her brain after having been accidentally poisoned when she was 17. For Arnold, 35, the sight is a window into both the past and the future. “I know what it’s like to have to depend on other people for every single thing, and what that does to you,” she says with quiet determination. “But all these lives are about to change.”
Nineteen years ago, Arnold, then a junior at Atlanta’s Lovett School, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, which put her in a wheelchair and seriously disrupted her life. Remarkably, 2½ years later, her symptoms went into remission. And today she is making sure that these hesitant people in her front yard will have one advantage that she never did. At the training complex just down the hill from the brick ranch house that Arnold shares with her husband, Kent Bruner, 36, an Oklahoma-born vet she met at a veterinary conference, a few dozen golden retrievers are being taught to open doors, flip wall-light switches and carry packages for humans who can’t.
Those skills will come in handy, but as the founder of Canine Assistants, an eight-year-old organization whose mission is to supply service dogs for the physically disabled, Arnold (and the 400 people on her waiting list) knows that these dogs provide something beyond mere physical aid. “Since Hebert came into my life, he’s taken all the loneliness away,” James Panuska, 40, who suffers from muscular dystrophy, says of his dog. Indeed, increased self-esteem is one of the greatest benefits of the dogs. “When clients leave here they sit taller, have stronger voices and perform tasks they thought were impossible,” explains Arnold. “Your dog looks at you like you’re the greatest person alive. Everyone needs that.”
No one knows it more than Arnold herself. It was in 1979, just short of her 16th birthday, that she contracted measles. “Not terrible, but spots everywhere,” she recalls. Before long she was having trouble walking, and doctors diagnosed MS. Her once active life degenerated into a grim routine. “I was either in bed or being lifted into a wheelchair,” she recalls. “Relationships become awkward. Everything becomes awkward.” The youngest of four, Jennifer was born to Harry Arnold, an ophthalmologist, and his wife, Margaret Ann, a homemaker. “I was especially close to my dad because he was 40 when I was born, and his practice was already established,” she says. “We spent a lot of time together.” And it was Harry who came upon an idea for helping his daughter cope with her illness.
After contacting Canine Companions for Independence, a fledgling organization in Santa Rosa, Calif., founded by former English teacher Bonnie Bergin, Arnold was devastated to learn that Bergin could not offer a dog to someone 3,000 miles away. “I felt kind of repulsive and unlovable in that wheelchair,” she says. “But I knew a service dog would look at me and just think I was cool.” So she and her father began discussing the idea of starting their own service-dog group. But in 1980, while walking near their home just two weeks after meeting with an attorney to discuss a business plan for the new service, her father was hit by a drunken 20-year-old motorcyclist with no license and four previous DUIs. “They operated on Dad that night, but he died in the morning,” says Arnold’s brother Gary, 45. That same night in the ICU, says Jennifer, “in some way that I can’t describe, I knew that the project we had started was still going to happen, that this was the way I was going to spend the rest of my life.”
When their insurance company refused to honor Harry’s policy because of a clause excluding death by a two-wheeled vehicle, Arnold’s mother launched a lawsuit that she ultimately lost and which wiped out the family’s savings. Used to a life of affluence, she and her daughter were forced to sell their house, “eat peanut butter and live in a small apartment,” says Jennifer. “The real estate agent felt so sorry for us, she didn’t even take a commission.” As a way of coping with the stress, Jennifer, in her wheelchair, began visiting a local stable. “That’s where I met Bo, a young bay horse with a black mane and tail who was cantankerous and a little bit bad,” she says. “If I didn’t get out to the barn, no one would pay any attention to him. So I kept going.” Over time, the two bonded so deeply that Bo learned to kneel so that Jennifer could climb on. “I can’t explain how important Bo was,” she says. “He was a constant.”
After graduating from Georgia State University in 1986, Arnold toyed with the idea of medical school and took a string of odd jobs. But she never stopped dreaming of her own canine-training facility. Then in 1991 a family friend donated money toward the purchase of 10 acres in Alpharetta, 35 miles north of Atlanta. Arnold and her mother moved into a ranch house on the property and, to make ends meet, opened a boarding kennel for dogs rejected by veterinary clinics. “It was pretty much a nightmare—the dogs that bit, wore diapers and barked all night,” says Arnold. “We didn’t have money for fencing, so we leash-walked 30 dogs six times a day, morning and night.” On Dec. 31, 1991, Canine Assistants was officially incorporated, and three months later, with the help of a hired trainer, the Arnolds began schooling their first dog. By the time their brochures came back from the printer, “we already had 20 requests for dogs,” says Arnold.
She and her mother put coin canisters at a local Wal-Mart and learned the ropes of fund-raising. “There were times we were completely broke,” says Arnold, “and then, out of the blue, someone would have a little check for us.” In 1998, after years of struggle, they saw completion of their 5,500-square-foot training center. There, each year, some 50 retrievers learn to perform remarkable feats, ranging from placing a client’s purse on a store counter so cashiers can take out grocery money to following handheld laser pointers for clients who can’t give verbal commands.
Arnold, who works exclusively with the dogs for their first several months, begins the training “even before their eyes are open,” she says. “Like babies, how they’re held and nurtured in the early weeks plays a crucial role in their success as adults.” From there, puppies go to trainers who teach them the rules of public etiquette at supermarkets and airports. After eighteen months (and a per-dog cost of $10,000, funded through private donations and such corporate sponsors as Milk Bone) the dogs are provided, without charge and on the basis of need, to their new owners. At camps held four times a year, recipients check into a nearby hotel and spend the next week, day and night, with their dog to establish a near-unbreakable bond. Together, owners and dogs learn 89 commands, from “fix” (untangle the leash) to “nose it” (turn on the light). At the graduation ceremony, “there is not one dry eye,” says Arnold, whose only regret is that her mother, who died in 1997, is not here to see it. “We can’t bear to say goodbye to the dogs, but we’re happy about where they’re going.”
Lois, a golden retriever, went home with Brandon Summers, 20, an Eagle Scout from Atlanta who was left unable to walk or talk four years ago after his oxygen was interrupted during a hospital procedure treating his pneumonia. Today, Summers is able to ride Cotton, his horse, with the help of Lois, who pulls his wheelchair to the barn and “provides fun for him—something there’s not a whole lot of right now,” says his mother, Melissa. “She’s the best thing in his life.”
The same might be said for Amanda Elmore’s dog, Butler. When school began in August in Erwin, N.C., Butler was by her side, carrying books and pulling her wheelchair from class to class. More recently, he has begun attending cheerleading practice four afternoons a week with Amanda, who has painted his toenails in school colors—silver and blue. “The first few times Amanda went to the mall after she was injured, it was awful,” recalls her mother, Susie. “No one would look at her, and she felt invisible. Now that she has Butler, everybody comes up to her. We are grateful for Butler. More than we can say.”
Gail Cameron Wescott in Alpharetta