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Dogs with a mission

At home, Tessa is a couch potato. But when she's working, the sturdy black Labrador is purely professional. "Even though she's a big baby and a lovable thing, when it comes to working, that's her joy," said Sandy Cluster as she hugged the big dog lolling on the couch beside her.

Tessa is a service dog and Cluster's constant companion. Cluster had polio as an infant and today is affected by post-polio syndrome and arthritis. She wears a brace on her leg, can't bend over, tires easily and often must use a wheelchair to get around.

But Tessa helps her maintain the mobility and independence that many people with disabilities lose. She is trained to pick up dropped items as small as a dime, pull Cluster's wheelchair up ramps, open heavy doors and stand as a sturdy brace for Cluster when she falls down.

"I'm strong, but I don't have stamina," Cluster said. "My strength is short-lived. That's where Tessa comes in."

Cluster and Tessa came together about three years ago through Support Dogs for the Handicapped.

The non-profit organization, based in St. Louis, is one of several dozen groups around the country that train dogs to become full-time helpers for people with disabilities.

Guide dogs have been used to help the blind lead more independent lives for more than 60 years, says Sheila O'Brien, secretary of Assistance Dogs International, a coalition of hearing dog, guide dog and service dog groups throughout the world.

The service dog concept didn't come onto the scene until the 1970s.

One of the first and largest such organizations is called Canine Companions for Independence. It was founded in 1975 in California by Bonita Bergin and has bred, trained and placed more than 520 dogs from its five regional offices.

Bergin said she came up with the idea while traveling in Europe and Asia. She said she saw many disabled people in public _ something she wasn't used to, because in the United States people with disabilities were often in institutions.

She also noticed that many of the men and women she saw got by with the aid of donkeys or burros.

"I realized that they were doing for themselves and that they were doing for themselves with these animals," Bergin said. "I thought, there's no way in this world that our sanitation department would allow donkeys and burros on the streets.

"Then it was kind of like a little light bulb going on, I just thought: dogs!"

Organizations like Canine Companions and Support Dogs generally are non-profit and are financed through grants and donations. They give the dogs to people with disabilities.

But demand is so great there are often waiting lists. Support Dogs places 12 to 15 dogs a year, but has more than 100 applicants waiting.

Since its beginning in 1981, the group has placed more than 80 dogs. Many of the clients have muscular dystrophy or multiple sclerosis. Others have been disabled by birth defects, spinal cord injuries, cerebral palsy, strokes or arthritis.

Mitzi Kirkbride, director of operations, said Support Dogs breeds and trains its dogs, usually golden retrievers, Labradors and German shepherds, and then matches each one according to its talents and personality with a client.

Each dog's training takes six to eight months and costs between $7,000 and $10,000, Kirkbride said. But before the formal training begins, the dogs are placed in "puppy foster homes" for up to 18 months, until they reach maturity.

Five-year-old Tessa plays like a puppy at home, bringing a visitor a tennis shoe or a rubber toy and soliciting a pat or scratch on the head with a nudge of her nose.

But when she's on the job, Tessa is perfectly behaved, Cluster said. She sits quietly by Cluster's feet during school board meetings or pulls the wheelchair while Cluster pushes a shopping cart at the grocery store.

"When we go to a restaurant, people say that dog behaves better than some kids," said Cluster's husband, Jeff. "A lot of people don't even know she's there."

Tessa means more to Cluster than just physical assistance, though. With the post-polio effects, Cluster has days when she feels strong and days when she's too weak to get out of bed.

"On days I can't do anything, the kids don't like it when I can't get up and dress them. Jeff might not like it that the house doesn't get cleaned. But Tessa doesn't care. She loves me no matter what."