Not only is Aries a perfectly trained helper for her wheelchair-bound master, she’s socially adept and a big sports fan.
Photo by Bill Schanen IVAfter his accident, Patrick Schmitt decided he wanted a dog to keep him company.
“I wanted a bulldog,” he said.
Instead, he applied to Paws With a Cause, a Michigan-based nonprofit organization that trains dogs to help people with disabilities, and received a yellow Labrador retriever named Aries.
“She’s so much more than just a pet or a service dog,” said Schmitt, 27, who was paralyzed from the chest down in a Sept. 1, 2006, motorcycle accident on Moore Road near Port Washington.
In the two years since Aries came to the Schmitt house in Port Washington, where Patrick lives with his parents Mary and Michael, the unassuming Lab has become a part of the family and a constant and loyal companion to a young man determined to remain active despite being confined to a wheelchair.
Now almost 4, Aries is a veteran service dog. At home, she opens doors fitted with short leashes, turns on and off lights “although that’s really me just being lazy,” Schmitt said, picks up phones and the special sticks Schmitt uses for typing when he drops them and is always on call to fetch help if needed.
“I can’t get out of bed by myself, so if there’s an emergency or I just need to get up, she’ll wake my parents up,” he said.
Outside Schmitt’s home, Aries is almost always by his side. At the Feith Family Ozaukee YMCA in Saukville, where he goes for physical therapy, at Concordia University Wisconsin in Mequon, where he is studying business management, and just about everywhere in between, Aries is there, standing by to help Schmitt.
Even when Aries appears sound asleep on the living room floor, a quiet click of Schmitt’s motorized wheelchair is all it takes for her to immediately look up and find Schmitt.
“I would say she’s been to more Packers and Brewers games than most people,” Schmitt said of his canine companion. “She makes me feel safer when she’s with me.”
There are only a few instances when Aries is not by her master’s side — when he’s hunting or out with friends.
“I don’t think Schooner’s is a good place for her,” Schmitt said of the downtown Port Washington tavern. “When I go out without her, she goes to my room, lays down and just kind of stares, or she goes to the back door and waits for me.”
It’s no mistake Aries is good at helping Schmitt, skills she owes to months of training paid for by Paws With a Cause. But Schmitt loves her not only for the physical doors she opens for him.
“The biggest thing for me is she’s a great ice-breaker,” he said. “People look at me in my chair and they think I have some sort of mental problem or am blind. It’s like they are afraid of me. But when Aries is with me, they’re more willing to come up to me and talk. I can’t tell you how many doors she’s opened for me in that way.”
Not by accident, Schmitt and Aries seem particularly well-suited for each other.
“I had to do hundreds of pages of paperwork describing Patrick’s personality and his lifestyle so headquarters could match him with the right dog,” said Cindy Dasbach, a field representative for Paws With a Cause who lived in Saukville when she worked with Schmitt. She and her family recently moved to Ohio.
Schmitt’s aunt knows Dasbach and suggested her nephew apply for a Paws With a Cause service dog.
Schmitt’s application was accepted and Dasbach was assigned to start the long process of training.
“The dog comes fully trained,” Dasbach said. “It’s Patrick who needed the training.”
Unlike other service dog organizations, Paws With a Cause doesn’t require its clients to travel and live for months at a training facility. Instead, they send a field representative like Dasbach to clients’ homes to gauge their needs and personalities.
Dasbach introduced her hulking Newfoundland named Crash, who is trained as a service dog, to Schmitt to see how he would react.
“Crash is a great dog, but I don’t know if my mom could live with a dog like that,” Schmitt said. “Newfoundlands drool a lot, and when he would shake, drool would go everywhere. My mom was cleaning it off the cupboards.”
Dasbach sent a videotape of Schmitt working with Crash to Paws With a Cause, which selected a mild-mannered Lab for him.
Like other Paws With a Cause dogs, Aries spent her puppyhood with a family for socialization, then went to the training headquarters in Wayland, Mich., to learn to be a service dog.
The dog and training, which cost about $20,000, are paid for by Paws With a Cause. Dog recipients pay nothing.
When Aries was about 2, Dasbach picked her up from the Michigan center and delivered her to Schmitt. The connection was instant.
“Training the dog owner usually takes about six months,” Dasbach said. “Patrick finished it in four to five months. He worked really hard.”
It was Dasbach’s first dog placement, one she’ll never forget.
“I just loved that I got to work with someone who lived so close and that it turned out so well,” she said. “Patrick and I became really good friends.”
So did Schmitt and Aries, and like any true friendship, this one seems mutual. Aries appears to be as dependent on Schmitt as he is on her, and is eager to curl up in his lap when the opportunity arises.
“She’s my 70-pound lap dog,” he said. “I don’t have kids, but I think I know what it’s like. She’s in my back pocket all the time.”
But the second her service-dog vest goes on, Aries is all business. She stops wagging her tail and listens closely for instructions from Schmitt. As her vest says, Aries is not to be petted when working.
“We do a lot of PR work for Paws With a Cause, so I let people pet her quite a bit, but other times they pet her without asking and it gets irritating because she is working,” Schmitt said.
Dasbach said, “Patrick is the perfect spokesman for Paws With a Cause. He and Aries are a great match.”
No one knows that better than Schmitt.
“Aries has encouraged me to get out of the house and do things again,” he said. “She’s made me feel as normal as possible.”
For more information about the service dog organization in Wayland, Mich., visit pawswithacause.org.