A man's best friend

Sunday, November 8, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Everybody in Northside who knew them sensed something was wrong when they saw Bruce Heaton without his dog, Butch. And there was.

Somebody had lured the stocky little Boston terrier into a car and raced off. One of the neighbors saw it happen, but couldn't catch the guy. This was back in July, and after a while it became clear that Butch was gone for good.

"If he was alive, he would have come back to Bruce," says his friend, Marcia Chadwick, a teller at North Side Bank and Trust Co.

It seems particularly cruel.

Bruce Heaton can't exactly go right out and find another pet. He needs a special dog. Bruce, 39, can't hear very well and is losing his sight. Two older sisters and one brother have died of the degenerative muscle disease that put him in a wheelchair.

Just like Lassie

Over nine years' time, the man and his little dog had kind of adjusted to each other. As Bruce's condition worsened, Butch picked up some of the slack. Once when the man fell out of his chair, the little black-and-white dog ran to a neighbor's house and barked until she followed him.

Just like Lassie.

And, of course, Bruce took care of his dog. Sometimes it was the only reason he got out of bed in the morning, certainly the only reason to pull himself into his chair and go outside.

It was a shame, everybody agreed. Janet Williamson, who's head of personnel at the bank, said "a bunch of us here decided we'd try to find a new dog for Bruce." They were thinking maybe one of those service dogs could help him with a few things around the house.

Scott Morgan, auditor at the bank, found out that these dogs cost in the neighborhood of $2,000. At least.

Then he saw a story in The Cincinnati Enquirer about a prison training program, and it gave him an idea. He called the man in charge of the Rover Rehab program at Warren Correctional Institution, where dogs are rescued from the pound and trained by inmates.

Scott explained the circumstances to prison officials. They have only 15 dogs in the program, but Scott is a pretty good explainer.

A prison visit

And one of the inmate-trainers began to prepare Billy to become Bruce's new best friend. A purebred Dalmation about a year old, the dog is being outfitted with a special harness, equipped with saddlebags, so he can help pull Bruce's wheelchair.

Angel Griffis, the bank's receptionist, along with Scott, Marcia and Janet took Bruce to the prison to meet Billy. Nobody remembered to bring dog treats, so somebody gave Bruce a bag of people snacks. He sat there, smiling, his fingers orange with Cheeto dust.

"This dog is perfect," Bruce said.

Billy can pick up objects dropped to the floor and is learning to operate light switches and open doors. But he already knows how to be a dog, which is the most important thing. You know, wagging tail, sloppy kisses, not asking any dumb questions, acting as though the world revolves around you. These are incomparable services, as any dog owner will tell you.

For Bruce, they are a reason to get up in the morning.

Laura Pulfer's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. E-mail her at laurapulfer@enquirer.com, call 768-8393, or fax at 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU-FM (91.7) and as a commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. Her new book, I Beg to Differ, a collection of her most popular columns and commentaries, is available at (800) 852-9332.