Paired with ‘the perfect dog’

Marshall woman with osteoporosis receives special assistance from Ion

Photo by Jim Tate Carrie Stiernagle was paired with her mobility assist dog, Ion, through Can Do Canines in New Hope.

MARSHALL — Sometimes, you just need a little help from a friend.

In Carrie Stiernagle’s case, that friend is of the canine variety, and is named Ion.

Stiernagle and her mobility assist dog Ion recently graduated from their training at Can Do Canines in New Hope. Since being paired, she has quickly learned his value.

She was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis when she was 18 months old, and since then, due to the arthritis and the meds she takes daily, has developed osteoporosis. She has difficulty with some tasks that most people take for granted. Picking up a dropped phone, for instance. Or taking off her shoes and socks. Ion assists her with those, and many more.

“He picks things up and delivers them to my hand,” she explained. “If I drop clothing, or a crutch, The phone is a huge one. He can close doors and open doors with a tug rope, and push handicapped (door-opening) buttons. He helps with my shoes and socks. There’s just so much that he does to make life easier.”

Stiernagle graduated from Southwest Minnesota State University in 2006 with a degree in computer science. The Freeborn native chose SMSU because of accessibility.

“I visited other colleges but that was the reason I chose SMSU,” she said.

Stiernagle was able to get around better back then, and received personal care assistance just on an occasional basis while in college. Since college, though, she’s had some health issues. She had neck fusion surgery in 2019 and in January had hip revision surgery due to the osteoporosis.

She joined Schwan’s Company after graduation and today works four days per week as a programmer/developer.

Ion accompanies her to work and knows how to act in the office setting, thanks to the extensive training the yellow lab received from Can Do Canines. He has his own cubicle next to hers. At a conference table, Ion will sit underneath at her feet.

“Schwan’s has been great, my co-workers, everyone,” she said.

Matching Stiernagle with Ion didn’t happen by chance. The two were paired after much research into their respective personalities. Stiernagle was interviewed to get a sense of her personality, and matched deliberately with Ion. Stiernagle then went to the Can Do Canines campus for a week to train with Ion.

“Most people don’t realize the intensity of the training,” she said. “They found the perfect dog for me. He’s pretty laid back, and so am I.”

Ion turned 3 years old in January.

Can Do Canines works with more than 200 dogs at any one time, and is on track to pair 53 dogs with humans in 2023, said Caren Hansen, marketing and communications manager for the organization. It is one of two organizations accredited by Assistance Dogs International. She said the organization has its own breeding program and raises and trains mostly labs and lab-crosses because of their intelligence and temperament.

Hundreds of volunteers help train the dogs, including prisoners from seven prisons in Minnesota and Wisconsin. The dogs must pass public access and home skills tests. After graduation, there is continued follow-up by a graduate services coordinator, said Hansen.

Having prisoners work with the dogs is a real win-win, said Hansen.

“It is transformative not just seeing how well behaved the dogs are, but the prisoners become a new person, also — they have more empathy, are more selfless and compassionate. It’s incredible,” Hansen said.

Can Do Canine service dogs assist individuals in five categories: mobility, hearing assistance, type 1 diabetes, seizure assist, and autism.

The 70-pound Ion got his name from a Can Do Canines benefactor, explained Stiernagle. Financial supporters are given the opportunity to name dogs born in a litter, with each name starting with a particular letter of the alphabet.

“She got the letter ‘I’ and was a science major in college,” said Stiernagle.

Thus, Ion.

Ion wears an identifying scarf when in public and people should not pet the dog when it is on the job. Once home from work, Stiernagle takes the scarf off and Ion goes to his kennel for a little rest.

“He knows he’s off duty then,” she said.

After kennel time, Ion enjoys more dog-like activities — “ball-chasing and tug-of-war are his favorites,” said Stiernagle. “And before bed, we have snuggle time on the couch.”

She loves to give him walks in her electric wheelchair, and is looking forward to taking Ion to area parks this summer.

They’ve been paired since September, 2022 and Stiernagle said they continue to learn each other’s personalities.

It’s a journey she looks forward to as she goes about her life, with a little help from her friend.


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