FORT LEWIS, Wash. - A Fort Lewis family member with progressive disabilities will soon meet a new friend that will improve the quality of her life.

Camille Even, 14, who was diagnosed with diabetes as a 2-year-old and was later found to have developmental issues, was selected to receive a special needs Canine Assistants service dog.

Thanks to the nationwide Milk-Bone Canine Heroes Program, sponsored by Milk-Bone and the Defense Commissary Agency, the dog will be given to her and her family at no cost.

"All expenses are covered, including all veterinarian care, for the life of the dog," said J.D. Fenessey, national director of sales for Del Monte/Milk-Bone.

As part of Camille's selection, she and her parents, Amy and Sgt. Daniel Even, 4th Squadron, 6th Air Cavalry, attended a special celebration Jan. 8 at the Fort Lewis Commissary.

Sergeant Major Matthew Barnes, garrison command sergeant major, opened the ceremony along with Gene Lantz, director of the commissary.

"We are really proud to be involved with Milk-Bone in such a great program," Lantz said. "This is a program that helps people."
Alex Carion, 16, who has had problems with balance all his life, knows better than anyone the value of a service dog. He was on hand with his golden retriever, Falcon.

"We received our dog more than two years ago," said Kellie Carion, Alex's mother.

"Falcon assists Alex with everyday tasks, such as retrieving dropped items, but most of all, the dog has just been a great companion. He keeps Alex company and really uplifts his spirits."

Service dogs aren't just pets. They go through extensive training to prepare them for their role. The training takes from 18 to 24 months, according to Fenessey, and it isn't cheap. Each dog costs from $15,000 to $20,000.

"That far exceeds what most families can afford, and that's why we're doing this," he said. "But only about one out of each 150 applicants can expect to get a dog. It's tough because there are so many people with needs, and the application process can take a long time."

Amy Even applied for her daughter in May 2007.

Now that she has been selected, Camille will attend a two-week training camp in Georgia. She will stay on a farm, where the dogs are bred, raised and trained. During the camp, she will be matched with the dog that will become her companion and assistant.

"Actually, it's more like the dog picks you," Kellie Carion said.

However, Canine Assistants narrows the number of candidates down ahead of time, using the information found in the application, she said.

"Everyone knows that dogs can be trained to assist vision- and hearing-impaired people," said Jennifer Arnold, founder of Canine Assistants, in a Canine Assistants news release. "More recently, it's been recognized that dogs are ideal aides for those with other physical disabilities, as well."

Dogs can be trained to turn lights on and off, open doors, retrieve objects, pull wheelchairs, summon help, physically support an ambulatory disabled person and much more.

Canine Assistants makes use of golden retrievers, like Falcon, and also trains Labrador retrievers. Camille said she doesn't care what kind of dog she gets. She's just happy that she's getting one. Her parents look forward to the addition to their household, too.
"This is a life-changing event for my daughter," Daniel Even said.

According to Keith C. Hagenbuch, deputy director, DeCA West, the commissary agency and Milk-Bone have sponsored more than 40 Canine Assistants dogs for individuals in the military community, including Soldiers injured in Iraq.

The motto of the nationwide Milk-Bone Canine Heroes Program is "Making a Difference - One Dog at a Time!"

It appears that's just what they are doing.

Barbara L. Sellers is a reporter with Fort Lewis' Northwest Guardian.