Lacey Woods and Charlie

Lacey Woods of Stanwood was matched earlier this year with Charlie, a black Labrador retriever and Summit Assistance Dog graduate.

Muscular dystrophy complicates life for Lacey Woods of Stanwood; her service dog helps minimize the difficulties.

Charlie, a 2-year-old black Labrador retriever, is Woods’ new canine companion. He graduated this spring from Summit Assistance Dogs training center in Anacortes and went home with Woods in mid-May. His job is to help her with tasks and provide daily support, as she lives with limb-girdle muscular dystrophy type 2I and relapsing polychondritis.

In limb-girdle MD, which Woods, now 46, has had since she was 17, the muscles closest to the body are generally most affected by the condition that causes progressive weakness and wasting in the arms and legs. She doesn’t know what part of her body the disease will affect next or how much.

For instance, she said she loves to cook but with recent changes, no longer can.

“The constant change is so frustrating because I constantly lose different abilities,” Woods said last week. “I go through the grieving process each time I lose an ability, which I didn’t think I would. My husband says it’s like Chinese water torture.”

Relapsing polychondritis exacerbates the condition of someone with MD. It causes recurrent inflammation in cartilage, causing pain and deformity in various areas of the body, such as airways, veins, joints, eyes, nose, skin and other organs, according to the National Institutes of Health (rarediseases.info.nih.gov).

The diseases are both chronic and progressive and have no cure. People with them, MD in particular, generally need a wheelchair for mobility, according to NIH. A companion or assistance dog can help with many tasks.

Woods, who uses a wheelchair, said Charlie is always eager to retrieve dropped items for her, open and close doors, fetch a phone if needed in an emergency and help her navigate daily life.

“He’s extremely intelligent, willing to learn anything I need,” she said.

Woods said Charlie apparently needs to feel like he’s helping even if he can’t.

“He gets between me and my husband (Stewart) when he’s trying to dress me,” she said. “(Charlie) will stand there and not move even if I tell him to.”

Before Charlie, Woods already had experience with a service dog, a golden retriever named Isabelle, with whom she was paired in 2013. Isabelle died earlier this year from a fast-growing cancer. Woods said Charlie is equally skilled and supportive but has a completely different personality than Isabelle.

“She constantly made eye contact with people because she wanted attention,” Woods said. “Charlie is more focused, and he loves to sniff, so his tendency is to have his nose always busy. He is very well trained and very intelligent, but he doesn’t go up to people to demand attention.”

She said she had come to rely on Isabelle, which made getting Charlie so soon “a miracle.”

Woods’ quick selection for a second dog was unusual, according to Lynne Jordan with Summit.

Applicants for assistance dogs through Summit, generally people with significantly impaired mobility, often must wait for months, even years, to find the right match for placement. However, Jordan said the nonprofit Summit commits to providing lifetime service to its clients and prioritizes placing “successor” dogs with clients waiting for a new match.

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“When a dog is nearing graduation, we take great care to match the dog with someone on our waitlist who is the best fit in regard to their personality, lifestyle and temperament,” she said. “Charlie was graduating just when Lacey needed him most!”

Alice Collingwood, a volunteer spokesperson for the nonprofit, said it’s not as easy as simply picking up the dog and heading home. Each owner-dog match must complete a Team Training Phase, an intensive, two-week, on-site training program that helps ensure the new teammates are compatible and understand each other.

“Summit’s dedicated staff are passionate about creating life-changing partnerships,” Collingwood said. “Lacey and Charlie are great examples of that. We’re happy for them.”

“It takes two years, more than $25,000 per dog, and many helpers along the way to successfully graduate an assistance dog for placement with a person living with a mobility disability,” Jordan said. Yet, Summit does not charge clients for their service dogs or the training, “relying instead on volunteers and donations to train and place our assistance dogs and community support makes these life-changing partnerships possible.”

Clients must be able to consistently care for their dogs and pay for quality food, vet care, treats and toys – like any other family member.

Woods and her husband are foster parents to five children. Woods said all the kids have embraced their family’s new addition.

“He is very gentle with them, and they were excited to welcome him to the family,” she said. However, as a young dog, “he’s a bundle of energy and keeps me on my toes,” so exercise and play time are important.

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