WEST LIBERTY - When Noel the service dog isn't pulling Sara Keedy up hills and opening doors, he is a very playful puppy.
"He himself is hilarious when he's off duty. ... He's a big marshmallow," said Keedy, a senior at West Liberty University who is training to become a dental hygienist.
Mount Olivet resident Keedy, who became paralyzed from the waist down when she had a spinal cord stroke at 12 years old, received the black Labrador/golden retriever mix from Canine Companions for Independence. She was on a waiting list to get the dog for two years. Noel, 2 years old, began training for his life's work when he was just 8 weeks old.
West Liberty University student Sara Keedy poses with her service dog Noel.
Keedy describes the dog as helpful and impressive.
Noel helps Keedy, who uses a wheelchair, get around campus by pulling her up hills. He also opens doors, turns on lights, picks up dropped items and, if necessary, helps her get back into her wheelchair. There have been two occasions when Keedy has fallen out of her chair and Noel has helped her get back into it. She uses his shoulders to push up and lift herself back into the chair.
"He likes to work. When he is in his vest ... he likes to do his commands and he likes verbal praise. He likes expressions on your face - he is always looking at your face. He can tell immediately if you're happy or sad," Keedy said. "He helps me get momentum up hills, which takes the stress off my shoulders. I've had shoulder problems in the past."
Keedy, 22, said she learned about Canine Companions after reading about them in a magazine and online. She then found a woman in Yorkville who already was using a Canine Companion service dog. Keedy didn't have to pay for the dog, just the trip to New York where she attended a service dog training. She was matched with Noel from the start.
"A lot people have a misconception that he only works, but he is trained as a service animal - that's all he knows. He thinks it's a game and he loves to do his job. ... At end of the day he's my baby and is like any other pet. I love him very much," Keedy said.
Keedy said since she has received Noel she has had encounters with fake service dogs in public.
Recently, she was shopping and a dog, whose owner claimed it was a service animal, acted aggressively toward Noel. Keedy said the incident was "scary."
"Noel didn't know what to do. The man had to get on top of his dog to control him. Noel kept going and the dog was pulling the man across the room. I wouldn't know what to do if a dog attacked him," Keedy said.
Keedy said she found a security guard who said the man claimed the boxer was a service dog and that he showed the guard papers stating that as well. Keedy noted, however, that fake service dog papers can be printed out online.
But managers and employees, she added, are legally permitted to make even a real service dog leave a store if it is acting aggressively.
Keedy said it would be unusual for a service dog to act improperly.
"I understand people love their pets, but it puts working dogs in a stressful situation. Noel is very submissive. Service dogs are bred to be submissive and they won't put up a fight," Keedy said. "When he's in class with me, he hangs out under the desk until class is over. When we come back to the apartment, I feed him and we play. Later that night, he helps me take off my shoes and socks at the end of the day. Then we just hang out and cuddle. ... He doesn't have a mean bone in his body."
Keedy, who graduates in May, said life before Noel was "hectic."
"Before I had him I was more nervous about going out in public by myself. ... I feel safe and more independent," she said.
Keedy was crowned Ms. Wheelchair USA in 2011 during a national pageant held in Ohio.
She helped organize a disabilities awareness day at WLU in 2011 during which students used wheelchairs, crutches or blindfolds to experience what it was like to have a disability on campus.
"Sara Keedy is a great example of how a service dog can enhance the independence of a person with disabilities. Her active lifestyle, her dedication to her collegiate career, and her love for Noel makes her the perfect ambassador for Canine Companions. We're very proud of Sara," said Debra Dougherty, executive director of Canine Companions for Independence Northeast Region.