Assistance-Dogs' Abode

After 32 years, Handi-Dogs finally has a permanent home

It's taken 32 years, but the late Alamo Reaves' dream has finally come true: Handi-Dogs, the organization she helped found in 1973 to train dogs to assist the disabled, now has an impressive new home of its own.

Being a dog lover with rheumatoid arthritis, Reaves thought the animals had a lot of untapped intelligence. She told the Arizona Daily Star in 1985: "As I became more disabled and couldn't tie my shoes, I would look at my dogs and say, 'I know you could do this for me if I could just teach you how.'"

Based on that concept, Handi-Dogs started outdoor training classes, with Reaves insisting the group would someday have its own indoor facility. More than a generation later, that building, the 4,800-square foot Alamo Reaves Service Dog Training Center, will have its grand opening in a few weeks.

Containing a large training room which can be divided in two if necessary, the building also has an administrative area, a kitchen, a small conference room and even a pleasant patio. While Handi-Dogs is carrying a mortgage, much of the cost of the structure was paid for through bequests and donations from numerous groups and individuals.

Standing in the new building with his 3-year-old black lab, Duke, sitting quietly by his side, retired physician Lee Moss explains what Handi-Dogs has meant to him in addressing his balance problems. "In one year of classes," he says, "we've come a long way. Duke can retrieve my cane, cell phone or keys if I drop them. After my wife, he's become my second-best friend."

Fostering that kind of relationship with dogs of any size is what the nonprofit corporation is all about, according to Executive Director Patricia Clinch. "We want to do more than train people's dogs," she stresses. "We want to help improve their quality of life."

Among the ways a service dog can do that is by providing more independence and confidence to a disabled person. The trained animal companion can also increase an individual's sense of security.

In group classes, Handi-Dogs' trainers work with both person and pet. From fetching tiny items to signaling the telephone is ringing to a deaf person, what the animals learn to do with their owner's assistance is truly remarkable.

Presently instructing 119 "teams," the agency in Tucson now has 13 service-dog classes and two general public-obedience sessions, while a Saturday-only class is available in Phoenix. But Clinch says Handi-Dogs is hoping to provide additional offerings. "We want smaller classes," she explains, "so individuals can get even more 1-on-1 time with the instructor."

The new building, Clinch knows, will help the nation's oldest assistance-dog training program achieve that and its other goals. "It put us in a position to build a foundation on which to grow," she says.

Clinch indicates Handi-Dogs would like to attract more low-income clients for its 60-to-90-minute classes held over a 10-week period. Scholarships, she emphasizes, are available to reduce the normal $85 fee to $30.

Another future enhancement the organization would like to make is to offer greater accessibility. "We're looking for a location in northwest Tucson to do classes," Clinch explains. "The idea is to have Handi-Dogs grow by starting satellite programs in other communities such as Oro Valley."

Those ambitious objectives are a long way from where Handi-Dogs was in the early 1990s, when its classes were held outdoors at Reid Park, with paperwork done in a cramped room at Reaves' home.

Almost a decade ago, when the Reid Park spring training facilities for the Colorado Rockies had to be expanded, the city of Tucson offered to move the Handi-Dogs pavilion to another location in the park, or to help the group financially. The board of directors chose to relocate to a rented warehouse, with Reaves insisting that was only a temporary step before a permanent location could be secured.

For her many years of relentless effort to improve lives, Reaves won numerous awards, including induction into the National Hall of Fame for Persons with Disabilities in 1985. Three years later, she was named Tucson's Woman of the Year.

While Reaves was always dreaming of the future, friend and longtime Handi-Dogs board member Mary Pilgrim was more down to earth. An accomplished athlete in her younger days, Pilgrim became an instructor at the University of Arizona in 1942 and would later serve for 11 years as the director of physical education for women.

Rob Craff served as president of the board of directors in the 1990s--while I was treasurer--and knew the two women well. Though they are both deceased, Alamo Reaves and Mary Pilgrim would be "tickled pink" by the new building and what it means for Handi-Dogs, Craff believes.

"It was their lifelong dream to have a facility," Craff says, "and I'm sure they're both smiling down from above now that it has been accomplished."