Amy Hoh, 51, is a Hamilton County employee with a strong voice, a glowing face, and degenerative disk disease that landed her in a wheelchair 5 years ago.
Cortez is a five-year-old German shepherd with bat ears that flicker constantly toward Hoh, waiting for a signal that she needs his help.
As a trained service dog, Cortez opens doors and carries drinks for Hoh, monitors the blood-sugar levels perceptible in her breath, and, in less busy moments, turns his exceptional focus upon learning new tasks and commands.
“He came to me with 43 different commands, and my job was to string them together into tasks I needed,” explained Hoh.
Cortez already knew, for example, that the verbal command “bump” meant “poke with your nose”—a command to which he responds daily, to open the disabled access doors in the buildings where Hoh works. Hoh, who is diabetic, said it took Cortez one night of study to recognize and alert her to the smell of ketoacidosis that her breath carries just before her blood sugar takes a dive. She trained him during one slump—“I’d blow in his face and say bump—“ and the next time her blood sugar began to sink, a poke from Cortez’ delicate nose tipped her off.
It was an inmate at Chillicothe Correctional Institution who taught Cortez his initial repertoire of commands. The dog spent his first two years in and out of Chillicothe after the death of his first human guardian landed him and four littermates at Circle Tail Inc., an organization that quickly saw service dog potential in Cortez and one of his brothers.
Circle Tail, based in Pleasant Plain, OH, provides deaf and disabled humans with prison-trained service dogs at no charge. The group also improves the adoptability of homeless dogs unsuited for service, by pairing them with inmates who teach them basic commands and social graces.
Similar programs have sprung up in most states, as well as in Australia, New Zealand, and several European countries, since a young Californian woman on welfare who later became a Dominican nun, founded the Prison Pet Partnership Program in 1981.
A Seattle Times report on the founder, Sister Pauline Quinn, describes a horrific childhood as a homeless runaway in 1950’s Los Angeles, who only learned to speak to people face-to-face in her 20’s, after joining forces with a German shepherd named Joni:
“Police didn’t stop Quinn when she walked down the street with the dog by her side. Joni became a magnet to people who wanted to talk. As long as their eyes were on the dog, Quinn could respond.”
Hoh is an outgoing woman whose settled marriage and career bear little resemblance to Quinn’s early life, yet she described similar changes after partnering with Cortez.
When Hoh’s chronic pain first led her to navigate public places by wheelchair, she was dismayed by how her social world changed. She saw people avert their eyes when she rolled past, and she heard parents tell their children not to speak to her, for fear of catching a disease. “I became invisible,” she said.
When she found Cortez two years later, that painful period ended. He draws curiosity and attention in spades, and people approach her constantly to ask about him.
“Cortez gave me back the part of my life that I lost to my disability,” said Hoh.