By C. G. Worrell
When Marcia Fritzmeier and her husband, Gary, opened their home in 2001 to foster and train a 1-year-old hearing dog from Can Do Canines, they had no idea that “Jack” would become one of the greatest pioneers in assistance-dog history.
Trial by Fire
The moment Marcia laid eyes on Jack, she thought, Not a Min Pin! But after an hour of working with the 13-pound dynamo, she knew he had the perfect temperament.
“He was bright, confident and trainable,” she says. “I loved the way he approached new situations with curiosity rather than fear.”
As part of Jack’s ongoing socialization, Marcia took him to Mayo Clinic frequently where she worked as a medical secretary. The doctors, nurses and patients fell in love with her new dog-in-training.
He mastered alerting humans to ringing telephones, doorbells, alarms and crying babies.
When Jack’s training ended and the time came for his official hearing-dog exam, Marcia stood back, wringing her hands. If Jack passed, the examiner would whisk him away to the home of a hearing impaired client. If he failed, he’d have to find a new career.
“Only part of me wanted him to pass that test,” she admits. “By that time I was so attached to him.”
Jack completed each task on cue until only one remained. The examiner triggered a new (and obnoxiously loud) smoke detector. The screeches ricocheted off the walls; Jack bolted and dove between the sofa cushions, thereby failing the final exam.
Chasing Away the Gloom
Jack’s loss was the Fritzmeiers’ gain. They happily adopted him and trained him to take commands from others. A year later, he breezed through the certification test for facility-based service dog. Fitted with a custom vest, he went to work at Mayo Clinic in the rehab unit of St. Marys Hospital, helping patients with brain and spinal injuries.
“Many of these folks were far from home, loved ones and pets,” says Marcia. “Jack would trot into the room and chase away the gloom.”
Beyond providing moral support, Jack followed the patients’ voice commands during speech therapy; he sat for brushings as they strengthened weak arms; he strolled beside their walkers while they regained balance and mobility.
“Jack made the work fun,” says Marcia. “The patients always pushed themselves harder and longer whenever he was present.”
He continued working part-time … until the big fall.
In 2005, Marcia fell and shattered her wrist at a public engagement with Jack. Even after three surgeries, a nerve transposition and six months of rehab, she could no longer type with ease.
“That accident ended my career as a medical secretary,” she says, “but it opened the door for Jack and me to continue our work full-time. I had one bum arm, but I could still hold a leash.”
In 2006, Jack and Marcia returned to Mayo, seeing up to 15 patients per day on multiple units. Jack comforted anxious children in pre-op; cheered up patients undergoing dialysis or chemo; and walked with those confined to wheelchairs. Sometimes Jack and Marcia logged as many as 7.5 miles a day during their rounds.
Returning patients requested to see him more often, so physicians wrote more referrals for “Dr. Jack.”
One of his longest relationships was with Kari Matney, a courageous young woman who unfortunately lost both legs. She and Jack met daily for over 18 months. He always made her smile and even accompanied her as she took the first steps on her new legs. When she eventually lay dying of cardiac complications, he remained by her side until she passed.
These acts of kindness did not go unnoticed.
A Star is Born
In 2008, the cable channel Animal Planet featured Jack in a segment about service dogs, and the Minnesota Veterinary Medical Association honored him with their Hero Award.
In 2010, Mayo Clinic’s museum director, Matt Dacy, venerated him in a children’s book titled “Let’s Visit Mayo Clinic with Dr. Jack the Helping Dog.” Barbara Bush even wrote the foreward. A year later, Ty Inc. turned him into a Beanie Baby.
“Jack’s popularity skyrocketed,” recalls Marcia. “Patients sent him Christmas cards, invited him to parties, and kept requesting him at the clinic. It reached the point where Jack needed his own secretary.”
A dog blessed by the Dalai Lama and cuddled by ex-presidents might let it go to his fuzzy head, but not Jack. He never lost sight of the goal: to provide outstanding care and make a difference in people’s lives.
By 2013, Jack had worked with over 6,000 patients. “Our mission was delightfully demanding, but we were both slowing down,” says Marcia. “Jack struggled with a back injury and hearing loss.” So in May, Jack and Marcia bid adieu to Mayo Clinic at a party attended by 300 well-wishers.
Jack continued to make appearances at Olmsted Medical Center and the Federal Medical Center, but retirement allowed him to spend more time cuddling in front of the fireplace with Lucy, his new Greyhound companion. Jack’s red coat turned grayer; he got a little bonier; and his hearing declined until Marcia relied upon hand signals to communicate with him.
In June of 2015, Marcia noticed Jack squinting and bumping into things. His veterinarian discovered bilateral cataracts, a vision impairment that is surgically correctable. Hoping for the best, Marcia brought him to the Veterinary Ophthalmology Specialty Practice in Minneapolis.
Dr. Olivero noted the cataracts, but what concerned him more were Jack’s sluggish pupils. The doctor ran a test to measure his retinal activity; Jack failed the exam. Olivero diagnosed him with SARDS (sudden acquired retinal degeneration syndrome), an uncommon disease of elderly dogs that isn’t painful but results in rapid blindness, and is not currently curable.
Already deaf and now blind, Jack could no longer communicate
with Marcia via hand signals. “I cried the whole way home,” she says, “but I figured if Helen Keller could have a decent quality of life, then so could Jack.”
The Next Big Challenge
The Fritzmeiers bought a manual called “Living with Blind Dogs” by Caroline Levin, RN, and altered Jack’s home environment and routine accordingly. They purchased a padded pet stroller for long walks, began keeping doors closed to protect him from stairs, and used vibration and touch control to guide him. At this point Jack can navigate the house as long as the furniture isn’t moved, and he can always find the food dish.
The next phase is to fit him with collar canes—flexible “feelers” that act like a corona of cat whiskers to prevent him from bumping into things. They’re also placing Tracerz around the house—positive and negative scent buttons that indicate safe zones (the couch) or dangerous obstacles (table corners).
“We’re still adapting, but Jack never complains,” says Marcia. “After all the years of joy and encouragement he has given to others, it’s our privilege to take care of him.”
Jack’s gal-pal Lucy seems to agree. She curls around him on the sofa and licks his face, showering him with the love he’s always given others.
C.G. Worrell is a freelance writer and part-time veterinarian at Heritage Pet Hospital.