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Morgan Lyons

January 25, 2000

 

Putting on the dog

DART Welcomes Canine Companions

On a Sunday afternoon in January, Dallas Area Rapid Transit went to the dogs.

As part of an ongoing program to enhance accessibility to rail transit, DART joined with Service Dog Companions of Texas to give 27 service dogs their first light rail train ride. Participants -- both two-legged and four-legged -- were taught how to use light rail safely during a trip that took them from the northern end of the system, through DART's 3.5 mile subway and into downtown Dallas.

"Because of my condition, I'm very dependent on my dog Sky, and it's important for her to be comfortable with public transportation," said Jodi Ryan, Multiple Sclerosis patient who relies on a 14-month-old Harlequin Great Dane to get around. "This is her first train ride, and a great opportunity for her to get more exposure in dealing with crowds and riding the train."

The afternoon was designed to expose both animal and owner to the DART Rail environment so they will feel more comfortable when using transit. Not only were the dogs taught to purchase rail tickets, they learned where to wait for arriving trains, how to use wheelchair ramps, and how to get around buses serving the stations. Safety was a major focus, as both dogs and owners were taught to watch for incoming and departing trains.

According to Ryan, service dogs possess an impressive level of attentiveness and intelligence. Beyond helping their owners walk, see or hear, they can be trained to respond to sounds, such as the alarm clock, telephone, oven buzzers, running water and door bells. But their level of assistance doesn't just stop there. Service dogs also are capable of doing almost unimaginable things like helping to make a bed, taking clothes out of the dryer and opening the refrigerator door.

All service dogs begin by learning the same basic commands, but they don't receive specialized training until they are placed with an owner. As a result, each dog's skills are specifically tailored to the owner's needs. Take Kellie Vanhorn's white Schnauzer, Snow, who remarkably understands English, Spanish, French and sign language. Kellie, who lost her hearing, reads lips but relies on Snow to hear.

"I teach special education students, and while I'm teaching my computer class, Snow will alert me with a nudge if any of the children change the computer program without my approval," she said with a grin. "Snow also informs me when children hang out in the halls after the bell has sounded."

DART travel trainers who came along for the ride found the dogs amazing to watch in action and inspiring to be around. "We work with people with disabilities every day, and we're always learning more about them and better ways to help them learn to use transit," says DART Travel Training Coordinator Louis Grooms. "This was doggone fun!"

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