April 11, 2012 Volume 33, No. 27
Extension program connects disabled farmers with service dogs
Missouri AgrAbility helps hundreds of farmers each year
Four years ago, Bruce Trammell was knocked cold when a track hoe bucket swung against his head while he worked on a railroad switch as a subcontractor for Union Pacific.
The crushing impact has caused him chronic medical problems that include vertigo, migraines, slurred speech and memory loss. For months after the accident, Trammell was too depressed to leave his 46-acre farm in Kingston, Mo., for anything other than hospital visits. His ailments worsened.
Then he met Odie.
“It’s like a dream come true,” Trammell, 53, said. “Not only is he going to be my buddy, but he’s going to be my right hand and stabilize me [from falling] so I can do the things I need to do.”
Trammell and Odie, an 18-month-old yellow Labrador, were united on March 12 through Pets Helping Agriculture in Rural Missouri (PHARM), a special program within the University of Missouri’s AgrAbility project.
Started in 1994, Missouri AgrAbility helps physically disabled farmers in the state perform daily duties. “Agriculture is dangerous work,” project director Karen Funkenbusch said. “Farmers can become temporarily disabled or have chronic health conditions.”
MU Extension faculty and staff lend their expertise by providing onsite training and aid. Each year they perform about 50 extensive field assessments on disabled or sick farmers and work less formally with hundreds more. Onsite help might be as simple as welding a handrail to a tractor, or as challenging as coordinating daily nursing care through an independent living provider.
Odie steadies master
AgrAbility is administered by the U. S. Department of Agriculture as both a national and state project. Funded by a federal grant, Missouri AgrAbility is overseen by MU Extension and the biological sciences department. It partners statewide with various independent living centers.
For PHARM, AgrAbility partnered with Midland Empire Resources for Independent Living in St. Joseph, Mo.
PHARM builds on the AgrAbility model by using canines — rather than people, gadgets and medical aid — to help farmers. The program has two components: training herding dogs to round up cattle and sheep, of which a handful have been placed; and training service dogs, of which Odie is the inaugural graduate.
As a puppy, Odie was rescued from a shelter and trained as a service dog, which includes barking to alert others if a patient falls. Odie also fetches objects beamed with a green laser. The Labrador helps Trammell by fetching tools and household items.
But something else is of greater utility.
Because of his injury, Trammell has severe balance problems. He’s cut and bruised his arms in falls and sustained concussions from falling backward. A wheelchair became his principal transportation.
He’s walking again thanks to Odie.
Odie is fitted with a leather harness and extended handle (like those on guide dogs) that Trammell grasps to steady himself. Trammel is venturing outdoors to make building repairs and tend vegetables in his high tunnel.
“When he was placed with Odie, you could see his posture change,” said Jackie Allenbrand, the MU Extension outreach specialist who founded PHARM in 2005.
“He was standing more upright with more confidence.”
Riding the fields together
Because the USDA grant doesn’t pay for dog training, which can run $5,000, PHARM is continually strapped for cash. To pay the bills, it holds fundraisers and accepts donations.
Living on worker’s compensation and his wife’s wages, Trammell can’t afford to donate to PHARM, but he’s giving back by volunteering at program fundraisers.
“I would not have this dog if Jackie didn’t design the program,” Trammell said.
Man and dog continue to develop a special bond. Trammell wants to modify his tractor cab so he and Odie can ride together on the farm fields.
“I’m glad that I got him,” Trammell said. “I just feel very, very blessed.”
PHARM Dogs for Missouri Farmers
PHARM currently has a waiting list for herding and service dogs.
The herding dogs are border collies who at 12 months old are trained for eight to 10 months.
The service dogs are Labradors or Lab mixes who begin training at eight weeks old for 18 to 24 months.
For Missouri farmers with questions about the PHARM dog program, email Jackie Allenbrand at firstname.lastname@example.org.