Kristyn Osterhaus, 18, broke into a wide smile Tuesday as Pablo, a 4-year-old service dog, retrieved a set of car keys and dropped them in her lap. Next year Kristyn will have a trained service dog of her own to fetch, open and close doors, turn on lights and be a constant companion.
"I'm very, very excited," she said.
Cub Foods and Milk-Bone announced Tuesday that they're donating a dog to the Paynesville High School senior, who was injured in a motor vehicle crash last summer and now uses a wheelchair.
The gift covers both the cost of the dog and a two-week training camp in Georgia next year with Canine Assistants, a nonprofit organization that provides free service dogs to people with disabilities.
Nearly three dozen people gathered in front of the deli counter at the Willmar Cub Foods store Tuesday morning for the announcement of the donation.
Cub has partnered with Milk-Bone for 10 years to provide service dogs for people with disabilities, but this is the first time someone from the Willmar area has been singled out to receive a dog, said store manager Ross Evink.
"It's a great initiative," he said. "Dogs are great anyway, especially when you're using them for a purpose. ... It's definitely a good thing to give to the area community."
It can take 18 to 24 months and cost $15,000 or more to fully train a service dog, said Judy Moore-Padgett, recipient services coordinator with Canine Assistants.
Demand for the dogs is high, and there's a lengthy list of people waiting to receive a dog, she said. With corporate support to underwrite the cost, however, Canine Assistants has seen a significant increase in the number of service dogs it has been able to train and place. Over the past 14 years, Milk-Bone and its retail partners have donated more than 950 service dogs across the U.S.
"It has shortened our wait list," Moore-Padgett said.
When Kristyn is paired with her new service dog next year, they will be trained together to learn at least 90 verbal and non-verbal commands.
A delighted crowd that included store employees and shoppers watched as Moore-Padgett put Pablo through some of his paces Tuesday morning.
"Sit," she commanded him. "Down. Good boy."
The dog, who often travels with Moore-Padgett as a four-legged ambassador for Canine Assistants, showed off his ability to fetch his leash. He picked up a set of car keys and then a pen from the floor, trotted over to Kristyn and dropped them in her lap.
"Give him a round of applause," exclaimed Moore-Padgett as clapping broke out among the audience.
Kristyn, who will graduate this spring from Paynesville High School, has three dogs of her own at home. She applied for a service dog last summer after undergoing rehabilitative therapy in Atlanta, Ga., where she first heard about the Canine Assistants program.
She plans to attend college and wants to eventually have her own apartment. Having a service dog will be "very beneficial," she said.
She already has some goals in mind: "I want a golden retriever and I want a male. ... I want my dog to be able to be social while he works."
Service dogs trained by Canine Assistants can do many practical things: open and close a door, fetch medication, pick up a dropped phone, pull a wheelchair. But the emotional benefits are often even more valuable, Moore-Padgett said.
For their new owners, they can become not only a best friend but also a way of connecting with other people, she said.
"Most of our clients have a disability or injury," she said. "They are marginalized in their communities or with their friends. A dog changes things. We've heard so many stories of the boosting of their self-confidence."