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Britney Beach, 19, bonds with her new service dog, Halley, while her retired service dog, a yellow Lab named Pepper (background), rests at the family's Stafford home.
With her dogs nearby, Britney Beach guides her wheelchair out of the family van.
Britney received her first service dog, Pepper, nine years ago. Pepper has now retired her official working dog vest.
By CATHY DYSON
One dog stands by Britney Beach's wheelchair, wagging her black tail and looking a little confused.
Another dog is a few feet away. This one's wagging her tail, too, but for seemingly different reasons.
Pepper, a yellow Labrador, is Britney's first service dog and recently was retired after more than eight years of duty.
Even though she spends more time sleeping as she's getting older, she's on her feet at the sound of Britney's voice. She stands nearby, ready to help.
After Britney and her family repeat the commands to the other dog, Pepper seems to sense that everything is OK.
She goes back to her spot, at the end of the full-sized beanbag where Britney often reclines, and dozes again.
There's a new service dog in the Stafford County household--and Pepper seems to understand the arrangement.
"She's so smart, she's probably figured it all out," said Britney's mother, Angie.
In early October, the Beaches came home from Canine Assistants in Georgia with their second service dog. Halley is a black golden retriever, a mixture of golden retriever and black Lab.
The Lab genes clearly dominated because Halley is as dark as midnight. Her white teeth, in contrast, are as bright as the comet she's named after.
When the Beaches decided to become "second-timers," they knew exactly what they'd do with their first service dog.
They'd retire her official vest, which declared she was a working dog, and keep her comfortable in her old age.
"Most places make you give them up because they don't want two service dogs in the home, but no way," Angie said. "She's part of the family. I couldn't imagine life without Pepper."
AN IMMEDIATE BOND
Britney, 19, who was born with cerebral palsy, isn't able to walk and has limited use of her hands. She has attendants who help at home and at North Stafford High School, which she'll attend until she's 21.
When she mentioned years ago that she'd like a service dog, her parents thought, "Why not?"
Britney was 11 when she and her parents, Sidney and Angie, made the first trek to Georgia. Britney tried out 13 dogs before she saw Pepper, and the two immediately bonded.
Britney liked Pepper's calmness more than anything. Her family had tried other dogs as pets, and Britney couldn't tolerate a hyper animal in her face.
Pepper quickly bonded with Britney's mother, too, because she's the one who cared for her.
When the Beaches went out in public--because Britney loves to be on the go--Pepper performed another vital service, beyond the regular retrieval of pens or pencils Britney might drop.
Pepper made it easier for people to approach Britney and her chair. They'd ask if they could pet the dog, and in no time at all, they were talking with Britney, who enjoyed talking with them.
Pepper also would hand money to people behind the cash register, helping Britney achieve a sense of independence when she went shopping.
As the years went by, the Beaches saw changes in Pepper, who turned 12 in August. She slept more. She roamed the house instead of sticking by Britney's side. And she didn't--or couldn't--climb into Britney's hospital bed at night and sleep beside her.
The Beaches made inquiries about getting another service dog.
There was no doubt they'd stick with Canine Assistants, a nonprofit formed in 1991 to help children and adults with physical disabilities, seizures and other special needs.
The program places 75 to 100 dogs annually, and as it did with Pepper, covers the cost of the dogs as well as their medical care and food.
The Beaches lived up to their end of the bargain, taking Pepper regularly to the vet, who communicated the dog's condition to the Canine Assistants people.
When the Beaches went back to Georgia on Sept. 30, they were in a group of seven people there for the second time.
Two still had their first service dogs, but the animals were in bad shape, Angie said. The other service dogs had died.
Britney didn't pick Halley. The people in the program did, and the two worked together for a week.
Like Pepper, Halley was matched with a person when she was about 18 months old and had been trained to perform about 90 commands.
Since they've been home, the Beaches have focused on giving Britney and Halley time to bond. Britney's mother has resisted the urge to pet her and asks visitors to do the same.
When Britney wants Halley to do something, Angie tries to stand back and not get involved.
"Even though Britney can talk, it's hard for us not to take over and do things," Angie said. "That's the mistake I made with Pepper, and I'm trying not to do that again."
'SHE'S STILL SPECIAL'
The Beaches say Pepper has adjusted to her new role, although she has looked a little forlorn when the family has gone out without her.
Angie often takes Pepper on trips, but can't bring her into stores or restaurants because Pepper is no longer an official service dog.
When Halley recently went to school with Britney for the first time, Britney's mother and her aide weren't the only ones waiting for the bus.
So was Pepper.
She jumped up the steps and got a treat from the driver.
Britney and Halley are going through the "umbilical cord" stage, when the dog's leash is hooked to the chair or in Britney's hand most of the time.
Halley is learning her way around, and the Beaches have noticed she's a "food hound" who loves to chew on things.
When the group comes back inside after sitting in the sun, Halley sniffs around to see what trouble she can get into.
"She's just like a child," joked Britney's aide, Gerri Beach, who isn't related to the family.
The Beaches admit Halley's still got a lot of puppy in her while Pepper is at the other end of the aging scale.
The family leaves one chore for Pepper to do. Each evening, she's asked to bring whatever's on the couch to one or the other of them. Pepper dutifully retrieves the phone, paper and TV remote.
"We let her do that so she still feels like she's working," Angie said.
"And I give her treats," Britney added.
"And make her feel like she's still special," her mother added.
Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425