- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
While on vacation in Texas in 2005, Michelle Sack and her husband, Michael, were sleeping when Michael’s dog came over and nudged Michelle awake.
She thought at first that the dog needed to go outside, but then Gibson, a golden retriever lab mix, went to Michael’s side and began to whimper. It was then that Michelle knew something was wrong. Gibson was alerting her to the fact that her husband was having a medical problem and breathing very shallowly. Michael was rushed to the hospital.
“If it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t be alive,” Michael said.
Gibson looked after Michael that night. It’s what he was trained as a puppy to do.
Gibson was raised and trained as a Canine Companions for Independence service dog.
The dogs are not trained to save lives, necessarily, but to assist adults and children with disabilities by performing everyday tasks.
For 10 years, Gibson has been opening doors for Michael, helping him get things such as shoes and other items and other tasks that Michael might have trouble with due to a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis.
Canine Companions for Independence spokesman John Bentzinger said the national headquarters for the nonprofit organization is in California, and there are five regional locations. The organization breeds Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers and a cross of the two. The puppies are sent to live with what they call puppy raisers from the age of 8 weeks to 18 months. The volunteer puppy raisers do not train the dogs but socialize them.
The dogs then are sent back to the organization for six months of training where they learn more than 50 commands, including turning on and off light switches and picking up dropped items. Bentzinger said the dogs are trained to pick up items as small as a dime.
Four times a year, groups who are on a waiting list to receive a dog come to one of the regional facilities where they are matched with a dog. The people with disabilities spend two weeks training at the facility, and by the end of the two weeks they are matched with a dog that is suitable for them.
Michael said when he was matched with Gibson in Medford, N.Y., “He came over and laid his head in my lap, and that was all she wrote.” The two have been best friends ever since.
“He’s a spoiled nut, really,” Michael said.
Gibson, when wearing his service dog vest, could essentially go anywhere Michael could go. The two met some resistance along the way from stores that weren’t too keen on allowing dogs in their business.
Michael said Gibson knew that when his vest was on, he was on duty.
The few times Michael has been hospitalized due to an illness or complication, Gibson, unable to be with Michael, would appear worried and pace about the house.
Michael said once, when he was taken out of the intensive care unit and in an area where Gibson could be, he could hear Gibson’s nails on the floor anxiously making his way to him. Michael said Gibson was so happy to see him that it looked as if there was a big smile on the dog’s face.
“He has been a big help for Mike,” Michelle said.
When Michael is in any sort of trouble, Gibson is trained to bark continuously.
Michael said his family and neighbors know that if Gibson starts barking, something is wrong.
Gibson also can go and get Michelle if Michael needs her, and she is in another room.
Gibson didn’t just steal the hearts of the Sack family but just about everyone he came in contact with.
The Waldorf Animal Clinic had a retirement party Saturday for Gibson.
Michael said Gibson, 12, is getting older and can no longer comfortably perform the tasks that once came easily to him. He will stay with the Sack family but only as a pet.
At his retirement party, Gibson was given his first-ever hamburger, fed to him by Michelle and his veterinarian, Jeff Phillips.
Hosting the party at the clinic was “the least we could do for him. Our whole staff loves this dog,” Phillips said.
He said Gibson could not come into the clinic for routine checkups or grooming without first stopping to say hello to everyone working that day.
Phillips said Gibson demonstrated some of the things dogs are capable of, “things you wouldn’t think about and most people take for granted.”
Michael said while working as a service dog, Gibson was on a strict diet. Retired now, he can have various dog treats he wasn’t allowed before and the occasional human food, but Michael said he would prefer he not eat too much that is not good for him. One thing he will continue to get, and had as treats while he worked, are carrots.
Lying in front of Michael’s wheelchair after previously soaking up as many hugs as possible from guests, Gibson looked around the room as stories were told about him and guests at the retirement party learned a little more about the program.
Michael said in retirement Gibson still would help him out but would lose his public certification and not be admitted in areas where pets are prohibited.
Michael plans to sign up for another service dog, known as a successor dog. The process could take about two years.