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Service dog gives Minnesota woman new confidence

A devastating wreck 16 years ago left Tammy Hiltner in pain, and daily tasks became progressively harder to do. But one year ago, she met Magnum, 4-year-old black British lab, trained by Can Do Canines in New Hope, Minnesota.

Magnum brings a clothes basket to Tammy Hiltner, which is just one of the ways he is trained to help her with daily tasks.
Thalen Zimmerman / Alexandria Echo Press

ALEXANDRIA, Minn. — On a winter’s day in 2006, Tammy Hiltner made her regular commute along Interstate 94, with evidence of a snowstorm brewing. It was about an hour from Freeport, Minnesota, to her job in St. Michael in Wright County.

Not long after arriving for her shift, her supervisor told her she needed to head home before the weather got worse.

Minutes after leaving, at the bottom of the I-94 on ramp, a patch of ice sent Hiltner spinning across two lanes into the shoulder of the median. The back end of her 1994 Explorer was toward the fence, and she was facing oncoming traffic.

Hiltner remembers a semi-truck in the passing lane approaching her. He began slowing down, which caused his trailer to fishtail toward Hiltner.

"I remember saying, 'Lord, if it is my time...' Well, I made peace," Hiltner, now 60, recalled.


The trailer hit her, pushing the Explorer toward the median fence and snapping Hiltner forward, causing her face to hit the steering wheel. The airbags did not deploy.

Since the accident, Hiltner has had multiple surgeries, mostly on her back. One of her surgeries left her with neuropathy, sciatica and spinal stenosis. Nerve damage from her hips down causes pain when standing or sitting for long periods, and sleep for her is troublesome.

She had a spinal stimulator inserted to block pain signals from her back to her brain, and battled a staph infection the device caused. She could have died, doctors said.

"My back will never be the same," said Hiltner, who now lives in Alexandra, Minnesota.

But in February 2021, a 4-year-old black British lab named Magnum came into her life.

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Tammy Hiltner holds her service dog, Magnum, by the paws. He helps her with daily tasks around the house and helps alleviate anxiety.
Thalen Zimmerman / Alexandria Echo Press

Magnum is a trained mobility certified service dog trained from Can Do Canines in New Hope, Minnesota.

He assists Hiltner with everyday tasks: turning light switches, opening her apartment door, and retrieving items on command if she were to fall. He also provides mobility support that could allow her to stand up. He even helps her remove her jacket by tugging on the sleeves.

"He's my stress reliever. He gets rid of my anxiety and keeps me distracted," Hiltner said. "I just feel a lot more confident to be able to do things. I wouldn't be as confident if he was gone."


With her husband being a truck driver and her son living over an hour away, Magnum is the perfect company that can lend a helping paw.

Hiltner and her husband began researching service dogs after daily tasks became too painful. They found that many places were out of their price range.

Then they heard about Can Do Canines which provides service dogs free of charge besides a $50 application fee.

Can Do Canines is "a service dog company dedicated to enhancing the quality of life for adults and children with disabilities by creating mutually beneficial partnerships with specially trained dogs," said Caren Hansen, Can Do Canines' marketing and communication manager.

Hiltner and her husband thought they sounded reputable and were impressed with the company's history, so they applied.

A client services team determines the specific skills that a dog could potentially perform for a client to understand the scope of the need.

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On Jun. 26, 2021, Tammy Hiltner and Magnum earned their certificate as a Certified Mobility Assist Dog Team.
Thalen Zimmerman / Alexandria Echo Press

"Several factors, including recommendations, interviews, etc., play into the decision-making process for which clients are accepted," Hansen said.


"They start training them at 5 weeks old, up until they're about 2, 2 and a half," Hiltner said. "They provide you with a kennel, food and a cape. They work with you."

Hansen says choosing a dog for each particular client is a careful, thoughtful process.

"We perform certain assessments with each dog to see what their true passion really is. A hearing dog, for example, is often one that is extremely alert and eager, as it is working 24/7," Hansen said. "We take pride in not only allowing our dogs to have their own say in what they grow up to be, but also in customizing each dog for its particular client's needs.”

Can Do Canines trains their dogs in five areas of disabilities: hearing, mobility, seizure, diabetes and autism.

Since he came into her life, Magnum has been a miracle worker for Hiltner. One night she was experiencing tremors in her legs and feet when Magnum jumped into bed and rested his head on her leg.

"To this day, since he did that, I haven't had any tremors in my feet. None. I don't know what he did," Hiltner said. "There's just something about him. He's got an aura around him that people just magnetize to him."

Thalen Zimmerman of Alexandria joined the Echo Press team as a full-time reporter in Aug. 2021, after graduating from Bemidji State University with a bachelor of science degree in mass communication in May of 2021.
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