He has soulful brown eyes, unwavering confidence and he’s the reason Kelly Holland keeps going … literally.
“He sleeps beside my bed, on my side of the bed,” Holland said. “When I get up, he gets up. When I go somewhere he goes with me. And he's my stabilizer. He keeps me from falling, he keeps me standing up, walking straight.”
“He” is Bear – a 90-pound chocolate Labrador Retriever, trained to be Holland’s guide dog, balance dog and companion.
“I was only 18 years old,”
Now Holland is 63. He and his wife Sandy didn’t realize how much he depended on the guide dog he had for eight years until that dog died.
“Bear means security for Kelly,” she said. “And when I go to work I know Bear is going to keep him from falling. He’s had some pretty serious falls in the last year and ended up in the hospital a couple times.”
The Hollands just brought Bear home March 21.
“We just kind of hit it off right away,” Kelly said.
But the process of choosing Bear and training him specifically for Kelly began nearly a year earlier. The Hollands live in Fort Wayne, but Bear was at the Humane Society of St. Joseph County. Brought in as a stray in early 2011, he had no collar, no tags and no micro chip to identify his owners. Since no one wanted him and no one else seemed to be looking for him, he was put up for adoption.
A short time later, the Hollands contacted a non-profit organization in St. Joe County called Midwest Assistance Dogs. Kelly and Sandy filled out an application and the organization’s board granted their request for a dog.
But Humane Society Director Dr. Carol Ecker and Midwest Assistance Dogs Director Mark Halasz had some work to do.
“All of our dogs are selected specifically for the applicant for whom they're going to be trained and they're custom trained specifically for that applicant,” Halasz explained.
He used a black lab mix, named Mags, who is currently up for adoption at the Humane Society to demonstrate how part of the selection process works.
Halasz guided Mags into a room and pointed out her lack of fear and anxiety.
“She looks very happy with people so this is all very positive,” he said.
Several times during the demonstration, Mags opened a plastic treat jar with her paws and mouth and helped herself.
“This isn’t a smorgasboard, young lady!” Halasz laughed.
“If we were looking for a dog we needed to open cupboards, open doors, open refrigerators, she's way ahead of the game because she already knows. She's got the instinct and the smarts on how to open something like that,” he added.
Those smarts and instinct are something dog trainer Gabrile Stewart recognizes right away.
“For some reason when you adopt a dog, they're thankful to you,” she said. “I call them little recycled puppies.”
Stewart trained Bear for Kelly.
“He’s a very special fella,” Stewart said.
Earlier this year, she introduced the dog to his new owner for the first time.
“It was very incredible,” she recalled.
“He came to me and stuck with me,” said Kelly.
The pair has been inseparable ever since.
“He’s happier. He smiles more. It's helped his dementia, it’s helped to trigger some areas of the brain only bear can seem to go after
In many ways, Bear and Kelly are still getting acquainted. It will take a good year until they mesh and work up to their fullest potential.
“He’s still in training. He has a lot to learn. I have a lot to learn and we’ll learn it together,” Kelly said.
But there’s no doubt that in the big dog with soulful brown eyes, Kelly found his best friend … and so much more.
“We’re just getting closer every day,” he said.
Bear is just one type of companion canine Midwest Assistance Dogs trains. There are also seizure alert dogs – trained to signal when their owner is about to have a seizure, hearing dogs, therapy dogs and others. In Kelly and Bear's case, the organization made a great match. But that doesn’t always happen.
If an assistance dog shows aggression or obviously won't work after the organization adopts it, that dog is then placed in a home that would be better suited for it and the process starts all over.
A trained dog from Midwest Assistance Dogs costs $6,000. The organization places between six and eight dogs each year.