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Service dogs make life worth living

  • COURTESY BALTIMORE SUN / APRIL 14
                                Grady, a 1-year-old bloodhound, stops to smell the entire room as he and his handler, Senior Deputy Charlie Holthaus, walk around the Harford County sheriff’s office.

    COURTESY BALTIMORE SUN / APRIL 14

    Grady, a 1-year-old bloodhound, stops to smell the entire room as he and his handler, Senior Deputy Charlie Holthaus, walk around the Harford County sheriff’s office.

Marlie is a yellow Lab with watchful eyes and a tireless vigilance borne of being a service dog. She lives to assist her owner, Fred Carlson, 77, who’s battling Lou Gehrig’s disease, also known as ALS. He lives, in part, to repay her devotion.

“She has given me a reason to be here,” said Carlson, of Fallston, Md. “I want to stick around for Marlie.”

For nearly five years they have been inseparable, an attentive dog and her wheelchair-using companion, a former Green Beret and Vietnam veteran who was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in 2008. From the onset, most patients with ALS live three to five years. Carlson, a retired colonel, has lived almost 13 years — in some measure, he believes, because of Marlie.

“She’s with me all the time,” he said. “When I fall and can’t get up, she gets down on the floor with me and stays until help comes. If I need something, she’ll pick it up (with a verbal or hand command) and bring it. If I stay too long in the shower, she’ll poke her nose through the curtain and check on me. She looks straight into my eyes and doesn’t waver, like she can see what I’m thinking.”

In Harford County, as elsewhere, man’s best friend can be more than a household pet. Some, like Marlie, are employed as service animals; others, as therapy or K9 dogs, their livelihoods tied to human needs.

Once, when Carlson fell in the handicapped stall of a public restroom, Marlie — who was right beside him — thumped her tail on the door to call for help. Another time, when his three-wheel mobility scooter got stuck on gnarly tree roots in the backyard, Carlson called his dog.

“Marlie, go get mommy,” he said. Off she ran.

“We call that the Lassie story,” Mary Jo Carlson said.

When her husband suggested acquiring a service dog from Canine Partners for Life, a nonprofit in Canonsburg, Pa., Mary Jo had her doubts:

“I said, ‘Are you kidding me? With all I have to do, and you want us to get a dog to take care of?’ But Marlie has given Fred a purpose, a reason to get up in the morning.”

Twice daily he slides into the seat of his battery-powered scooter and, leash in hand, takes Marlie for walks through the neighborhood.

“It’s her relaxing time to sniff and explore — and it gets me out of the house,” said Carlson, a lifelong athlete who has run 26 marathons. The two share other light moments as well. He has taught Marlie, 7, to bow and to give him high fives and lap kisses.

“She has brought such joy and positivity to us,” said his wife of 49 years. “If we’re down she’ll grab a toy, throw it around and make us laugh.”

Carlson marvels at the dog’s single-mindedness toward him. “A squirrel could run between her legs and she wouldn’t pay attention.”

Forget the ALS; he’s determined to stay alive for Marlie’s sake.

“I want to be here when she leaves,” he said. “I want to look into Marlie’s eyes and be the last thing that she sees.”

Comfort and affection

Six years ago Carol Brandau sized up her two dogs — a couple of canine couch potatoes — and resolved to find them jobs.

“I decided that they were doing nothing and needed to earn their keep,” she said. So Cash and Cupcake, both miniature American Eskimos, became therapy pets. Each week, one or the other accompanies Brandau to Commonwealth Senior Living in Bel Air, Md., where residents hug, stroke and coo over one of the waggly white furballs whose arrival seems to make their day.

“Cash is more outgoing. He has a smile on his face, and he’ll prance around like he thinks he’s special,” said Brandau, of Bel Air. “Cupcake is not as bubbly, but she’ll let (seniors) turn her upside down, hold her like a baby and scratch her belly.”

In return, she says, the dogs lick residents’ faces affectionately and also “to get whatever lunch might be left over there.”

Brandau and her pups are part of Pets on Wheels, a longtime Maryland program in which volunteers and their dogs visit nursing homes and assisted­-living facilities to comfort seniors. Barred for a year by the pandemic, Brandau, 71, and her charges returned in March to an audience eager to see them.

“Most (residents) remembered Cupcake immediately,” Brandau said. “Even if they were napping when we got there, they woke right up to play with the dog. One man kept nodding off but stroked Cupcake even as he dozed.”

Often the greetings take place in Commonwealth’s activities room, where the seniors play bingo. The dogs sit among the players, paws on table, ostensibly bringing good luck to those sitting nearby.

Some years ago a resident took a shine to Cupcake, whose birthday was the same as her own.

“For three years, on that day, I brought (the woman) cupcakes,” said Brandau. On one visit she took a snapshot of both resident and dog, then framed the photo and gave it to her.

When the woman died, Brandau took Cupcake to the funeral home to pay their respects.

“The family was so grateful that we’d come to say goodbye,” she said.

There, atop the coffin, was the photo of Cupcake and friend.

On the trail

His ears are as long as Christmas stockings. His eyes evoke a hangover. And he’s blessed with a roamin’ nose. Meet Grady, a bluegrass bloodhound who belongs to the K-9 unit of the Harford County Sheriff’s Department. His job? To find elusive souls — children, dementia patients and, yes, crooks — from even the barest of scents.

Man-trailing, or tracking, is Grady’s forte. At 16 months he passed muster in March, having completed 250 training missions. His final test: pursuing a subject over more than a half-mile, after a steady rain, while chasing a scent that was 52 hours old.

“Grady has a lot of potential,” said Charlie Holthaus, his handler and a senior deputy in the department. “At this young age he has the ability to figure things out on his own. His sense of smell is five times stronger than ours. His ears are like two big brooms that sweep up the scent from the ground. His body language is easy to read; when he’s on a track, his tail curls up in a serpentine manner, like a cobra coming out of a basket.”

For all of Grady’s job skills and pedigree — he’s a fifth-generation man-trailer — at home he’s a big galoot, said Holthaus, who cares for him round the clock. “He’s extremely rambunctious, going 110% all the time.”

Holthaus shelters the 75-pound dog in a covered and insulated backyard kennel. “I’m thoroughly convinced that, if inside, Grady would destroy my house. There’s a never-ending supply of slobber; the only time I have a clean uniform is from the time I walk out the door in the morning until I get him from the kennel.

“He’s ravenous — every time he eats, it’s like he’s never eaten before. And he stinks. It’s unavoidable, the nature of the dog. If I give him a bath today, tomorrow he’ll smell like he did yesterday. It’s a constant battle to keep his ears clean. They have scars from when he was younger; then, his ears were so much bigger than his head that he stepped on them when he walked.”

That said, man and beast have formed an enduring bond. Holthaus named Grady after his grandfather. And on the dog’s first birthday, in January, he received a breakfast of fried eggs, his favorite.

“He’s playful, lovable and part of the family,” Holthaus said. “When he retires (from police work), I know I’ll keep him.”

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