Poodles Lending a Paw

A program offered by a nonprofit Hampton group helps provide newfound freedom for the disabled.

A story by LISA FINNERAN that was featured in The Daily Press, December 26, 2005

HAMPTON — “Brace.”

Vikki Coggsdale reaches down, puts one hand on either side of the standard poodle’s hard leather-covered harness and uses the dog to steady herself as she gets up from an easy chair.

Coggsdale has been unsteady on her feet for years, ever since she began suffering from violent seizures that make it impossible for her to do the things many people take for granted. She couldn’t go outside alone, cook on the stove or even go up or down stairs by herself because she doesn’t know when a seizure is about to start.

That was until Hampton’s Jasmine Charitable Trust introduced her to Michelle, a dog trained to warn Coggsdale of oncoming seizures and provide other assistance. Because of their sensitive sense of smell, dogs can detect small chemical changes that occur in a person just before they have a seizure.

Coggsdale took Michelle home to Richmond to live with her for the first time earlier this month, after the dog was trained with Jasmine Charitable Trust founder Beverlee Engle for more than nine months.

Born out of necessity in 2000, the nonprofit trust works exclusively with standard poodles – the breed Engle bred and showed for years before she became disabled herself about eight years ago. Engle suffers from a trauma disorder that makes it difficult for her to leave her house.

A stroke and bursitis made it even more difficult for Engle to get around on her own. She had been around dogs since her teens, and figured it made sense to turn to her dog when she needed help. “Dogs were something I always felt comfortable with,” she said.

She first looked into getting a dog from an established service dog training operation, but was told they wouldn’t allow their dogs to be placed in a home that already had other dogs. And Engle refused to get rid of her former show dogs, including her prize champion, BlackTie, and All that Jazz – also known as Jasmine.

Instead, she did some research and began training her silver-colored poodle Jasmine herself at home.

“I began by asking her for her right and left paw and she did it beautifully,” Engle said.

Jasmine – the organization was named for her – died in 2000.

Engle now gets around with the help of Lennox, a regal-looking, white haired poodle that wears a stiff harness with a patch telling people “Please don’t pet me, I’m working” when she is assisting Engle.

The dog goes with Engle everywhere. Service dogs are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act and are allowed to go anywhere their human partner goes.

Which is why Engle and her trainees can be seen in establishments all over the Peninsula getting the dogs used to working in public.

Engle says she works with poodles because they are smart and train easily. They also don’t shed and don’t produce dander that aggravates some allergies.

Roughly 20 dogs live with Engle, either in her Bellwood Road home or in the 2-story kennel in the back yard. All of the dogs are either in training and working with Engle or their partner, or retired.

Engle says she lets the dogs choose their partner instead of the other way around.

“If you are going to spend the rest of your life with a person, 24-seven, you should have a choice,” she said.

Michelle chose Coggsdale after two dogs passed her by.

“Three dogs came in,” Coggsdale said. ” The first two walked in and walked out. But Michelle came in and threw herself right up on my lap. She was loving all over me. And then she put her head on my chest like a child.”

The second time they met, Michelle warned Coggsdale about 30 minutes before she suffered a seizure.

“She kept putting her paws on my chest and she wouldn’t let me get up,” Coggsdale said.

When Coggsdale got home, she wanted to go for a walk – the first time she’s been able to do that unacompanied by another human since the seizures began years ago.

“I’m not a dog person, I’m a cat person,” Coggsdale said. “So to put my life in the paws of a dog was a very big step for me.”

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