When you’re with Tom, you’re with a celebrity. I’m pretty sure I could have been on fire and nobody would give a second glance with Tom standing next to me.
To be fair, Tom is a handsome fella. He’s pretty smart, too.
The 1-year-old retriever is an assistance-dog-in-training. He’s one of many dogs learning to help the disabled through an organization called A New Leash on Life.
Volunteer trainers like Jeanne Neugebauer work with dogs like Tom for about a year before the pups are promoted to specialized training, where they learn skills like pulling a wheelchair or leading the blind. A New Leash on Life volunteers teach the dogs basic manners and behaviors universally acceptable for assistance dogs.
For example, an assistance dog needs to be able to go to the grocery store with his owner without being distracted or scared. So trainers spend a lot of time preparing their dogs for the real world. Neugebauer let me give training a try at Penn Square Mall.
Tom walked patiently on my left, looking around but paying attention to my speed. Shoppers grinned at him and a few stopped to pet him. One little boy barely old enough to walk was particularly taken with Tom. His dad asked if they could approach. I said yes, and the boy toddled up.