When 11-year-old Ella Horn begged her parents for a dog, Lauren and Peter Horn began researching ways to placate her without committing to the lifelong care of a pet.
In late September, they brought home a temporary solution — a husky golden retriever named Boone.
The Horns have temporarily hosted three pets through Educating Canines Assisting with Disabilities, a non-profit based in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. that trains and gives service dogs to injured veterans, autistic children and others with limited mobility, stability or balance.
The family has signed up to watch golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers and great Dane-Labrador retriever mixes in their Spuyten Duyvil apartment over weekends and holidays when the dogs aren’t busy learning to serve people with physical disabilities.
“It’s definitely as good as getting a dog,” said Ella, a fifth grader at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School. “I love Boone because he’s so fluffy and soft.”
The Horns completed 12 hours of training through ECAD. They learned how the organization turns the puppies it breeds in Connecticut into dogs capable of switching lights on and off, opening and closing doors and refrigerators and retrieving and delivering pills, cash or trash. The dogs master nearly 90 commands by the age of 2.
“Make no bones about it, these dogs are in school from 9 to 6,” said Ms. Horn, who noted that ECAD takes the pets on field trips to restaurants, movie theaters and subway stations to help get them accustomed to life as a service dog. “ECAD is really amazing. Once the handlers put cotton balls in their mouths to help prepare a dog for a client with a speech impediment.”
Host families agree to practice skills with the dogs, evaluate their progress and refrain from petting the puppies until they earn positive reinforcement.
Boone was bashful at first. The Horns lured the golden retriever into their car with a trail of Kibbel dog food and some prodding from Ella and her sister Joss, 7.
The family then welcomed Memphis, a great Dane-Labrador retriever mix. They ended up keeping him for two weeks when ECAD’s power went out during super storm Sandy. His brother Neil stayed with the family next.
Boone returned to the home during the girls’ winter break from school. On Dec. 27, he leapt between their legs and waited for the sisters to pat his head after he complied with their commands.
The girls had grown accustomed to asking him to “paw,” or shake their hands with his front leg, “sit,” “lay” or “stay” in place. But they still found the command “get busy” amusing.
“They can’t just go to the bathroom,” Ella explained. “You have to tell them to go.”
Soon, the family will attend a graduation ceremony for Boone, where the Horns will avoid making eye contact with the dog in order to help him bond with his new owner.