Samuel Habib: Proton, my companion dog, is a kid's best friend
Betsy McNamara (left) works with her son, Samuel Habib, and a trainer at Canine Companions for Independence with Samuel's service dog, Proton.
Samuel Habib's service dog, Proton.
Samuel Habib gets a service dog.
Proton and Isaiah Habib find some rest.
On a cloudy afternoon, with a storm moving in, my parents and I left New London, Conn., on a ferry. It would be a journey we would not forget.
We were headed to Medford, Long Island, home of Canine Companions for Independence Northeast Region. That’s where I was going to be matched up with my very own dog.
I love animals and especially dogs. But most of the dogs I know jump and lick my face, and I hate that. Since I use a wheelchair to get around, it’s hard for me to get the dog off me. At the Canterbury Fair about four years ago I met a dog that didn’t do that. It was a puppy being raised by a CCI puppy raiser. Even with the drums and dancing and bells at the fair, this dog was calm. The puppy raiser had the dog visit with me, and I could pet it without getting licked. We decided right there to see if I could get a CCI dog. If I had one of these dogs, I could play with it and have lots of fun. And it could help me feel better when I am sick and have to go to the doctor.
At CCI my parents and I trained to become a “skilled companion dog team.” There were other families there, too – each would be matched up with its own dog.
My mom and dad were trained as dog handlers. They learned to use commands, corrections and praise to control the dog. I would be the “recipient” – I get the dog’s affection and companionship.
I met a lot of dogs! There were yellow labs, black labs, golden retrievers and lab-golden mixes. For most of the first week we didn’t know which dog we would be matched with.
Sometimes we used treats to train the dogs. We practiced commands like “kennel” to get the dog to go into its crate.
The “lap” command means the dog should put its front legs into my lap. The “get” command means he should pick something up off the floor. The “hold” command means he can’t let go of it. And the “visit” command gets the dog to put its chin on my lap.
Because I have cerebral palsy, it’s difficult to talk, so I use a computer device with a touch screen called a Dynavox to help me communicate. Sometimes I give commands and praise with my Dynavox voice.
Outside of CCI we also learned how to call the dogs back to us with the “here” command.
The dogs were trained to walk alongside wheelchairs and are careful not to get their paws under the wheels.
As we worked, Hurricane Sandy was moving in toward Long Island, faster and faster. When it hit, cities and towns near CCI were flooded and cars were under water. We lost power but kept training and meeting dogs.
The CCI staff brought in lots of food every day. The generator kept some lights on for Halloween. I went trick-or-treating in the halls of the dormitory.
Finally, the day came when the trainers made a “pre-match.” They figured out which dogs would probably work best with each person or team. We were so excited to be matched with a yellow lab named Proton!
Proton is funny – and awesome. He loves to run with his friends and to play tug with other dogs. (He usually wins.)
Proton started staying with us in our room, and we let him come up on my bed. We learned how to keep him healthy and practiced brushing his teeth. When the power finally came back on after eight days, we gave him a bath. (CCI had a hose that ran shampoo right through it.)
Eventually, we took our first field trip. Service dogs are allowed to go into places other dogs can’t, like stores, restaurants, airplanes, doctor’s offices, even schools! When Proton goes in the car, he sits on the back bench, and his leash gets clipped to the seat belt so he can’t run off into the parking lot.
We took Proton and the other dogs to Target, Lowe’s and Sam’s Club. It was funny to be in the aisles of stores with so many animals!
Two days before graduation, we learned that I was matched permanently with Proton, and on graduation day, we got to meet the people who raised Proton as a puppy, Clark and Jane Torell. They gave me a picture of Proton as a puppy, and we gave them a photo of me with Proton.
Our graduation ceremony was held in a hotel – not a place you usually see so many dogs! We got a diploma and everyone clapped. (It was my second graduation after elementary school.)
After that, we took Proton home with us to Concord, where he got to meet our cats, Lucky and Charm, and my older brother, Isaiah.
These days, one of my favorite things to do with Proton is read with him. I also like to play with him in our backyard, sometimes with other dogs. He helps me relax, especially when I have to go to a doctor’s appointment. And when we are out in the community, everyone wants to say hi, so I am meeting lots of new people. (One tip: If you meet Proton, please call him by his nickname, Mr. P. That way he won’t get confused with too many people calling his name.)
It’s awesome to have Proton as my companion dog.
(Samuel Habib is a student at Rundlett Middle School in Concord. For more about his dog-training adventure, go to tarheelreader.org/2012/11/18/my-skilled-companion-dog/.)