Animal Farm Foundation set Jericho up with owner Matthew Smith, changing both their lives for the good

By Kelli Bender
Updated September 11, 2015 05:56 PM
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September is National Service Dog Month, an important time to champion the animals who selflessly change the lives of so many in staggering ways.

One of these furry heroes is Jericho. Like many service dog, Jericho helps his owner, Matthew Smith, handle tasks he has trouble doing on his own and brings a smile to his face each day. Unlike many service dogs, Jericho is a pit bull.

Smith and his service pooch were paired up together through Animal Farm Foundation’s Assistance Dog Training Program. For the past four years, the non-profit’s program has devoted itself to rescuing pit bulls from shelters and training them to be amazing service companions. Apryl Lea is the certified Assistance Dog International trainer who transforms these loving animals and then delivers them to their new homes at no cost to the recipient.

It’s a gift that Smith, 42, is thankful for everyday. Because of the program, the Bel Air, Maryland, man has a new friend to explore the world with, a partner to help him through the day and a companion to support him through difficult moments. Jericho’s touching friendship with Smith is just one of the many bonds that AFF has made possible, proving that the misconceptions about a pit bull’s nature are just that, misconceptions.

Smith talked to PEOPLE about the impressive ways Jericho has improved his life physically and emotionally, and how his dog shows that a pit bull’s demeanor is all about the attitude of the person who raises it.

Matthew Smith

How did Jericho come into your life?

Originally, I had a motorcycle accident in 1994, which put me in a wheelchair, but I could still walk with crutches. About 5 years ago, I broke my leg and really hindered my ability to walk with crutches, so I looked into getting a service dog to help me with the wheelchair and help me when I drop a crutch while I am walking.

I looked at all the big name service dog places and the waiting lists were unbelievable. Once you get on the list, you were looking at two years before you got an animal, and you didn’t get to pick what kind of dog you got. I started to looking into getting my own dog and having it trained which is about $15,000. Then, my ex-girlfriend showed me Animal Farm Foundation. I talked with Apryl on the phone and then she came down and assessed what needs I had. She brought another dog, who was in his later days of training to give me a sense of what their dogs can do. After, she went back to New York and started looking for dogs. She got a call from a friend in Florida, saying he found a dog who was great for her program. Apryl usually doesn’t take someone else’s word, because it takes a special dog, but she said okay and got the dog, and that dog happened to be Jericho. He was found wandering on the streets of Florida. Apryl did some training with him and then brought him down for an initial meet and greet. It was an immediate click.

He finished his training and Apryl brought him down along with everything you could imagine. She walked in with a gorgeous pit bull that was phenomenally train and she also had a crate, food, medicine, leashes, vest — anything that I would need for Jericho for the first couple months. So, that’s how we started our relationship. It was two years in June. In those two years, we’ve been apart three times, and that was only for a couple hours each. He goes everywhere with me.

What reactions do you get to Jericho?

He is a phenomenal dog, so mild mannered. People ask what of kind of dog he is, and when I tell them he is a pit bull, they say “Oh, but they are vicious dogs.” Some think, because he is a pit bull, Jericho is a bad dog. It’s funny how people do that. But, more often than not, I get people that stop and want to know more about pit bull service dogs, because they don’t see them. I get a lot of people saying, “I have a pit bull at home, it’s great to see them being used as service dogs.”

They are unbelievably great dogs, as long as they are raised by great people. You get a bad person, they are going to raise any dog to be bad. You are going to have a bad Chihuahua or a bad Lab. It doesn’t matter what type of dog it is, it’s how you train it.

Matthew Smith

How does Jericho help you in your day-to-day life?

The main thing he does is help me pull my wheelchair. He is able to pull me and a full shopping car through the store. He is able to hit handicap buttons and elevator buttons. He can pick up keys, his leash, my crutch. If I happen to fall, he will come stand beside me and brace me as I get up. I can put my body weight on his shoulders to get up. He knows to stand there. The main thing that he does is mobility.

I never thought of it, but I think he does a lot emotionally for me, too. I was a very outgoing person before my accident, but became reclusive after my accident. Having Jericho with me, makes me feel more comfortable about going out and grabbing something. It feels like the attention isn’t on me in a wheelchair, but on Jericho.

What are some of your favorite things to do together?

He thinks he is human because he goes everywhere. We have a queen size bed, and he will come in between my wife and I, and will see his people laying on their backs, so he will lay on his back, with his feet straight in the air, and go to sleep.

It’s not really what we do, it’s what he does. His personality and how well-behaved he is, it’s unbelievable. He is a wonderful animal and I am blessed everyday that I have him.