Saint Francis Graduates Nine More Service Dogs

The nine St. Francis of Assisi graduates and their masters at last week’s 13th annual graduation ceremony.

by Gene Marrano

Carol Willoughby founded the St. Francis of Assisi Service Dogs foundation 15 years ago, but even though wheelchair-bound herself, she had never received assistance from one of these extraordinary canines. That changed recently, and last Sunday Midas was introduced to friends and supporters of Saint Francis Service Dogs at the 13th annual graduation ceremony.

Nine dogs that took two years to train and an average of $25,000 to do just that, sat on the stage at Cave Spring High School with their new pet owners and the trainers who patiently worked with these dogs, showing them how to perform up to 50 tasks like turning lights off and on, picking up keys off the ground, how to go for help if it looks like their owner is having a seizure or other medical difficulties, etc. Donations assure that the dogs are properly trained.

“They change people’s lives completely,” said program emcee John Carlin, the former Channel 10 news anchor and a member of the St. Francis board of directors since its inception.

The service dogs – which often receive early training from prisoners in the Virginia state correctional system – are “bridges to the community,” said Carlin, who now works at Ferrum College in public relations. Carlin added that, “everything that happened here today is because of Carol and her vision – and Doug [her husband].”

As for Midas, “[he has] proved to be the perfect match for Carol,” said Carlin of the golden retriever, who was trained by Connie Kniseley, raised as a puppy by Bill Clarkson and fostered by Judy Bates. “Raising a service dog is a lot of work,” testified Clarkson from the stage. He wasn’t sure early on if Midas had “the right stuff” and could handle the training (some dogs don’t make it.)

One big problem? “He never outgrew liking blondes [like Willoughby].” Midas would get excited and start wagging his tail, breaking his concentration. Service dogs cannot even be petted unless they are given a command to allow that, since it can interfere with their mission. “He was just looking for the right blonde,” added Clarkson – Midas eventually came around.

Sunday’s graduation was “right up there with the most exciting days of my life,” said Willoughby, who has seen the Saint Francis Service Dogs program spread beyond the Roanoke Valley. One of the service dogs that graduated on Sunday, Ekko, is now the program’s first ever “facility dog,” trained to help a variety of people at a rehabilitation center in Hampton Roads.

Ekko lives with Wendy Bunting when not working at the Riverside Rehabilitation Institute, helping to make patients days a bit brighter as they go through long-term therapy for a variety of ailments, such as a stroke.  “She truly has been one of the best employees,” said Bunting. “It’s hard work, what we ask our patients to do. [Elko] is able to participate in the therapy with them.”

Just reelected Roanoke County supervisor Butch Church was on hand last Sunday, some had criticized him for having Midas out on the campaign trail with him. Willoughby singled him out as a “very special friend.”  She offered to campaign for Church and that meant Midas came along. “We enjoy volunteering together,” said Willoughby recently on Church’s personal website. “Church has never asked to take Midas anywhere on his own, nor would he want to do that,” she added.

As for the latest graduating class of nine and the canines that have been through the program before, “I see all my service dogs [now] through Midas,” said Willoughby of having one of her own. “He has invigorated me.”

See saintfrancisdogs.org for more information.