BATAVIA – Blair, a black Labrador retriever, was laying quietly at Rochelle Byrd’s feet in the darkened theater at Randall 15 IMAX in Batavia, ready to help her with any task.
Byrd, 24, was born with cerebral palsy, and she uses a wheelchair for mobility. Blair is Byrd’s assistance dog.
Blair was trained at the Ohio-based Canine Companions for Independence, a nonprofit provider of trained assistance dogs for children, adults and veterans with physical disabilities.
“The dogs know approximately 40 commands when they graduate from the program,” Byrd said. “She does not like to do things wrong, and she gets upset when she doesn’t do them right.”
A few minutes earlier, Blair pushed the automatic door to the Randall 15 open for Byrd and gave her money to the cashier. Blair is well known to the staff at Randall 15, since Byrd is a movie buff.
“We have multiple people who come in with service dogs,” said Anne Kaufmann, the Randall 15 assistant manager. “We have never had a single issue with a service dog. Our staff are acquainted with the process.”
In fact, Kaufmann said the service dogs help to raise the spirits of fellow theatergoers. She said “it makes people happy when they see an animal helping somebody.”
Blair is always at Byrd’s side.
“It is kind of like having an attendant, but it is a dog,” Byrd said.
Byrd was a junior at Batavia High School when she received her first assistance dog, which retired recently. Byrd said the dog was getting tired, adding, “he couldn’t keep up with me anymore.”
In February, Byrd went to Canine Companions’ North Central Regional facility in Delaware, Ohio, to complete two weeks of team training. Participants are matched with a dog, and they learn to work effectively together.
“The first three days, we work with all the dogs that are going to be potential matches,” Byrd said. “On the third day, we’re matched with the dog that they think we are going to have, and then we work with them the rest of the two weeks.”
Byrd was matched with Blair, and she said she is happy with the match. Byrd said Blair “wants to learn new things.”
“She learns very, very fast,” Byrd said. “For example, it took my first dog about two weeks to learn how to take my socks off. It took Blair about four days.”
Byrd’s family adopted Byrd’s previous assistance dog. In addition, they own a cocker spaniel that also tries to help her out. Byrd said that dog “likes to try to do things.”
“She doesn’t know what she is doing, but she likes to try,” Byrd said.
And Byrd’s retired assistance dog is enjoying his retirement. Byrd said if she asks that dog to do something, “he’s like, ‘I’m retired, make her do it.’ ”
Byrd’s dogs have given her more independence.
“I don’t have to panic because I dropped my phone, and nobody is around,” Byrd said. “I didn’t have a dog for about four months, and I noticed I had some pretty severe anxiety going into public without the dog.”
Blair helps with pain management, as well. Byrd also suffers from scoliosis and said she has “pretty severe back pain at times.”
“At night, I will have her get in the bed with me and lay with me, and it really helps the pain,” Byrd said.
Assistance dogs are allowed to go anywhere the public is allowed, she said. Getting an assistance dog opened a new world to Byrd, both in helping her with different tasks, as well as socially.
“I definitely noticed kids coming up to me more and talking to me when I had the dog, versus a human aide,” she said. “People would come up to me more and start conversations and smile at me as they’re walking by, instead of staring and frowning.”
Her mother, Gretchen Byrd, said she also noticed the difference. She said people will be “looking at the dog, and they’re not looking at the wheelchair and all that.”
“They’re looking beyond that,” she said.
Gretchen Byrd said she hopes that as service dogs become more of a common sight, that people realize the important job they have.
“They need to know what the rules are for service dogs,” she said. “It is working and is not there to greet everybody.”
Information about Canine Companions is available by going to its website, www.cci.org.