Service dog aids Fairchild family member
Service dog aids Fairchild family member
Kimberly Hawks kneels with her medical alert dog, Zeuss, an 18-month-old German shepherd June 22 at Fairchild Air Force Base, Wash. Ms. Hawks obtained Zeuss from Schraderhaus K9, a breeder in Roy,  after detailed research about medical dogs and their services. Zeuss comes from an accomplished canine family; his parents are both titled working dogs, and his brother is a drug detection dog in Arizona. (U.S. Air Force photo/ Staff Sgt. Connie L. Bias)

by Staff Sgt. Connie L. Bias
92nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs

7/10/2007 - FAIRCHILD AIR FORCE BASE, Wash. (AFPN)  -- They say dog is man's best friend, but for a 23-year-old Fairchild Air Force Base woman, a dog is much more than a friend.

Kimberly Hawks has always loved animals. From the time she was a child, she has depended on her pets for comfort, support and companionship. Her German shepherd, Zeuss, is no different. The sleek, black-coated 18-month-old purebred stays by her side night and day, offering constant loyalty and friendship. But that's not all Zeuss provides. 

As a psychiatric service dog, the canine is more crucial to Ms. Hawks' life and health than any animal she has owned before. After a hospitalization in December, Ms. Hawks needed more daily assistance than she was receiving, and started looking into the possibility of obtaining a medical alert dog. After speaking with her therapist and researching applicable laws and the American with Disabilities Act, the Fairchild AFB family member had her doctor write a letter of support and stared the journey to welcome Zeuss into her home. 

Ms. Hawks is married to Staff Sgt. Jeremy Hawks of the 92nd Civil Engineer Squadron explosive ordnance disposal unit at Fairchild AFB. 

"A service dog is basically an animal that assists their handler with life activities," Ms. Hawks said. "Service animals are used for all kinds of things -- for people with seizures, blind or deaf people -- and the animals are trained to perform specific tasks, individual tasks for their handler."

Zeuss is trained to do things like turn on lights, wake Ms. Hawks up, retrieve her medications and alert her of medical emergencies. All of this specialized training takes time to complete, and the dog owner can choose one of two ways to accomplish the training; hire out or do it yourself.

"I recommend doing it yourself if you have the energy and time because you bond with the animal more, and you learn more about your animal," said Ms. Hawks, who decided to train Zeuss with help from service animal experts in Spokane. "We train on the basic commands. Then we also train for a canine good citizenship test and a public access test."

These tests cover a variety of commands and actions, including the proper way to enter or exit vehicles and buildings, stopping at crosswalks and avoiding distraction. After the animal has mastered certain competencies, a dog trainer administers the final tests. This initial training process normally takes six months to a year, she said.

"Really, training is a life-long process; you're always training," she said. "Luckily, Zeuss is very mellow and loves to learn, so he's progressing very quickly."

Life with a dog isn't always work and training, though. While Zeuss has an important job to do, he also enjoys his play time.

"I work a lot with in-vest time and out-of-vest time," said Ms. Hawks, referring to Zeuss's red service-dog vest. "When his vest is off, he's allowed to be a puppy, to play and chase around the house. As soon as his vest goes on though, we have to separate the friendly animal from the job he's supposed to be doing -- he has to lie down, be quiet and listen." 

That added discipline and responsibility is one of the biggest differences between a household pet and a service animal. Service dogs have a much higher level of accountability because they "must be totally reliable," she said. "You can't go out in public and have the dog growl at another dog or bite somebody; he must do his job." 

The general populace can help service animals and their handlers by knowing what to do, and what not to do, around and to the animals, Ms. Hawks said. "You don't want to pet service animals without asking, and you don't want your kids to run up to the animal. (Service animals are) not to be played with."

This "hands off" policy is not because the animal is dangerous.

You should "never be afraid of a service dog," said Ms. Hawks. A service dog should be well beyond dangerous inclinations before appearing in public. It is because distractions can be dangerous. When a service dog is working, the dog's handler should be the animal's first priority, and extraneous distractions can upset the animal's concentration. 

In many ways, Zeuss should be treated with the same caution and respect as a military working dog. Though Zeuss's job and training are completely different from a military dog's -- Zeuss is not trained to attack or bite on command -- the German shepherd needs the same courtesy to perform his duties.

"Let the dog work and do his job," said Tech. Sgt. Mike Talley, the 92nd Security Forces Squadron military working dog section NCO in charge. "Base personnel should know, when they come across the service dog, not to reach down trying to pet the dog, not to try to feed the dog. Let him pay attention to Kimberly the way he should.

"I also ask base personnel to welcome them and be supportive of her medical need," Sergeant Talley said. "The military working dog section is behind them 100 percent, and Zeuss should be welcomed anywhere on the base possible. As a medical service dog, he's providing an important service for her and her safety as she travels around, both on and off the base."

Ms. Hawks said she realizes people will be drawn to her dog, and there are times when strangers can pet Zeuss. She just requests people "always ask before petting him," and she's quite used to fielding petting requests from adults and children alike.

It's no wonder, considering Zeuss's friendly, curious disposition -- he's about as loving as a pet can get. And that's what makes him so good at his job as comforter, supporter and lifesaving friend.

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