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Kinsley Tarr and 'Shelby'

The following article appeared in the Post-Crescent on 3/19/2000.

handicaps, barriers, a dog and a story of friendship
'He's totally changed my life.'
By Heather La Roi
Post-Crescent Staff Writer
Mar 19, 2000

One of the special tasks that Hawk helps Kinsley Tarr with is opening doors. Together, they've mastered all kinds of doors: ones that pull open, others that push open, elevator doors, automatic doors and sliding doors on a van.

But perhaps the most important doors Hawk has helped Kinsley open are the ones you can't see.

At the time when she got Hawk, she was in high school and she really didn't connect with any kids or have a network of friends." said Jane Tarr, Kinsley's mother. "It has really helped her emotionally to have a companion and it kind of focused her in a different direction. She had to take care of Hawk and she had to try to teach him to help her so it gave her an empowerment type of attitude.

Without his support, I think some of the hurdles of dealing with the frustrations of having a disability would be much more traumatic." For the past five years, Kinsley and Hawk have been an almost inseparable team.

Kinsley goes shopping now, she attends movies and goes to restaurants and church. Twice a week she and Hawk take the Kobussen van out to Media Play where she has her first paying job, affixing security stickers to items and greeting customers. She has also served as a volunteer with the Fox Cities Children's Museum and visits local schools and nursing homes.

"When I don't have Hawk, people don't talk to me. It's totally different now." Kinsley said. Hawk is one of a handful of dogs in the Fox Valley from the Wisconsin Academy of Graduate Service Dogs, better known as WAGS. WAGS, based in Madison, started in 1987 with the idea of helping people with mobility impairment. Its dogs - generally golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers, German shepherds or some combination of these breeds - undergo two years of intensive training before being placed with someone like Kinsley.

Hawk has a working vocabulary of about 40 commands, many of them specifically tailored to Kinsley's needs. "It was really hard." Kinsley said, "Sometimes I couldn't remember what command to go with."

On command, Hawk will gently grab the cuff of her jacket sleeve in his mouth and help to pull it off Kinsley's arms. He can fetch the phone off of its receiver set. He helps her to roll over in bed.

If she drops something, Hawk will pick it up on command and deposit it in her lap or where ever she tells him to. Even coins are not beyond him. "The first time I saw that, I went... (her mouth shapes into a large O ). 'Is he going to swallow that?'" Kinsley said.

Because Kinsley has limited extension with her arms, Hawk regularly is called upon to transfer items like a wallet or package to and fro. Seeing this, store clerks, for instance, are sometimes a little taken aback. "They're kind of wary, what is she doing? There's this huge dog (with his paws) up on the counter." Kinsley said, with a delighted laugh.

Most people are initially just curious. And then it's "wow." What all this adds up to for Kinsley is a welcome sense of independence. "Before I had Hawk, I kept dropping 20,000 things like every five minutes." she said. "(With him), I could be more independent, not having my parents do every single thing that I drop. If they're downtown for something and 10 minutes later I drop something and they are not there to pick it up ... it's frustration. Before if I drop the (TV) controls, aw shucks, now what am I going to do? I'd have to wait for somebody to pick it up. He makes things much easier."

The Tarrs are now in the process of creating a separate "apartment" for Kinsley within their home to allow her more independent living space and, as Jane puts it, a broader sense of individuality.

The mutual learning process for Kinsly and Hawk involved much more that simple commands, however, "Hawk taught me about patience." Kinsley said. "If he doesn't do it right, I usually get frustrated but he taught me not to. And not to get mad at him."

Going through automatic doors or entering an elevator, for example, were real challenges, according to Jane. The two had to work together a long time to get the timing right so Hawk wouldn't panic. "It really strengthened her level of patience to work with him." Jane said. " It has taken a long time for Kinsley to realize that she has to make sure his tail is in before the door shuts. She has to be really aware of her space to make sure that she and her wheelchair and the dog are with her the entire time."

When others express reservations about going someplace with Hawk, Kinsley sets them right. "He's part of my life, and I need him everywhere I go." she said. Part of her mission with getting out and about with Hawk is also to educate people - especially since everyone, it seems, wants to come up and pet the nice doggie, despite the "cape" he wears telling them he's a service dog.

"It's very hard not to pet the dog." Kinsley said, "but then the dog won't do his tasks that the person really needs him to do."

As might be expected, Kinsley's parents were initially wary about trusting their daughter's welfare to a dog. "I was very positive (about getting a dog), but I guess I was a little bit concerned about the management of a dog, the responsibility." Jane said. "Because out in the community, who knows what can happen. Now we've just learned to live with that sense of reality. There's always going to be a risk everywhere you go but I think the fact that she's able to reach that level of independence gives her a sense of empowerment and confidence. She didn't have much confidence before she got Hawk and it's helped her to be able to speak up for herself in other areas, too. He's opened up a lot of channels for Kinsley. Unlike the old days when she really didn't have a lot of reason to go outside, Kinsley often gets out in the neighborhood now. Ostensibly it's to give Hawk exercise but it's clear he isn't the only beneficiary."

She circulates around the neighborhood and meets neighbors more." Jane said. "It's just kind of one thing leads to another and she's more a part of the community."

"Wanna treat?" asks Kinsley, reaching into a little bag at the side of her wheelchair. Hawk's tail wags in response.

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