When Matthew Smith first set eyes on Jericho, a young Pit Bull rescue who would soon become his personal service dog, he knew that it would be life-changing.
Matthew Smith was 22 years old in June 1994 when he was involved in a high-speed motorcycle accident. “I hit a car, flew up and hit the traffic light, and then flew 262 feet in the air until I landed in the median strip and slid into oncoming traffic,” says Smith.
One of the major injuries from the accident was a broken pelvis fracture, which also stretched the nerves in Smith’s legs and caused him to lose all feeling (other than nerve pain) in his right leg and left foot. Smith was told he would never walk again, but he refused to accept the diagnosis. “After 5 1/2 months in shock trauma and in-house rehab, I walked out of rehab using crutches; I now use crutches and a wheelchair every day to get around,” says Smith.
Despite the progress, the accident changed Smith’s life forever. “Using a wheelchair and crutches every day has taken a toll on my body, and I have had three broken bones caused from overdoing/pushing my limits as well as basically destroying both shoulders,” explains Smith. “Because of the wear and tear on my joints, it got to the point where it hurt to get around. Instead of giving up and getting a power wheelchair, I decided to look into a service dog.”
But the search wasn’t easy. Smith was told he had to wait a couple of years to be approved for a service dog program, and then an additional 1-2 years until he could be matched with a trained dog. “The wait time really put me off of the idea,” says Smith.
A few years later, Smith looked into getting a dog himself and having him trained as a service animal, but the cost (around $15,000) made it impossible. It wasn’t until he posted on social media about his search that he found out about a nonprofit organization that trained service dogs for people—and they did it for free.
The goal of Animal Farm Foundation’s Assistance Dog Program is to pair disabled people with trained service dogs, and to prove that even breeds that are often discriminated against can make perfect companions.
“The program was started approximately 6 years ago in an effort to meet our mission of securing equal treatment and opportunity for Pit Bull dogs,” says Erich Steffensen, special programs manager at AFF’s Assistance Dog Program. “Our main focus is to provide a well-trained assistance dog while showing that rescued and sheltered Pit Bulls can be considered for the same work as purebred dogs.”
All dogs in the program are rescued from shelters, and any Pit Bull breed qualifies as long as a few requirements are met. “The dogs need to be confident and nonreactive to people, animals and their environment,” Steffensen explains.
“I contacted Animal Farm Foundation and got in contact with their trainer, Apryl Lea,” says Smith. “I was a good candidate, and she started to look for a dog that would be a good match for me.”
A few months later, Lea set up a meeting for Smith to meet the dog she was training with him in mind. That dog was Jericho, a 2-year-old Pit Bull who had been found wandering the streets of Florida and taken into the local shelter. “This is where the story of Jericho and I begins,” says Smith.
When asked about that meeting, Smith says that from the first time Jericho and he met, it was as if all the stars aligned. “The connection Jericho and I had was life-changing,” says Smith.
Unfortunately, Jericho still needed to finish his training before he could go live with Smith, and that took an additional 5 months. “It seemed like forever,” says Smith. “Total training took about 18 months—a little longer then normal—because he had to be trained to know when to pull me and when not to; he needed to know the difference so he didn’t pull while I’m walking.” Jericho finally moved in with Smith in November 2013.
How Life Has Changed for Jericho and Matthew
Jericho can now pull the wheelchair, pick up items that Smith drops, open doors and help him get up if he falls. “He definitely helps me open up to people when I’m out in public,” says Smith. “I would normally be very self-conscious when I go out, but now with Jericho, I feel as though everyone is looking at him and not me.”
When asked about their life together, Smith points out just how clever and full of personality Jericho is. “He’s so smart that you can tell him to get a dog toy from the living room, and he will go and get the toy you ask for,” Smith says. “His eyes show human traits—you can see the intelligence behind them.”
Jericho is also a very laid-back dog who takes his job very seriously and is happy just being with his people. That’s not to say that this loving dog didn’t have a rough start of his own. “Jericho is deathly afraid of any explosion or gunfire,” says Smith. “We think that he ran away from wherever he lived during some scary incident that likely involved yelling and gunfire or banging based on his reaction to any loud noise.”
While that means Jericho won’t make it to the firework displays every Fourth of July, Smith is just fine with that. “Jericho not only helped me with getting around, but also helped me fill needs I never thought I had,” he says. “I never knew that I needed or had any issues with stress or anxiety until Jericho filled those needs.”
Diana Bocco is a full-time writer and adventurer who has written for National Geographic, DiscoveryChannel.com, Yahoo! and Marie Claire. Diana has lived in five countries and taken her rescued dogs along to each one of them.