Poulsbo volunteer has quite the tail to tell

POULSBO — A new volunteer welcomes visitors to the Poulsbo Chamber’s offices these days.

But rather than a handshake and a “hello,” she uses a tail wag and a bat of her big, brown eyes as a greeting.

Pasha, a golden retriever helper dog owned by Dave McNeil, has been spending her days at the Jensen Way office. McNeil, a Bainbridge Island resident who uses a wheelchair because of Multiple Sclerosis (MS), has been volunteering at the office for about two weeks and Pasha comes along. The two have delighted and intrigued many passersby so far, said Chamber Executive Director Jim Martin.

“Kids’ faces are always at the window and they want to come in and pet her,” Martin commented, “and David lets them but he explains to them that she’s a working dog and he’s got to give her a command to be petted.”

McNeil and Pasha started working together one year ago this Thanksgiving. McNeil, who was diagnosed with MS in 1987 after ignoring his declining health for a few years, said at first, he wasn’t interested in a working dog.

“I felt I was so independent, I didn’t need anybody to help me,” he recalled.

But that was probably a good thing, because Pasha didn’t think she needed anybody, either.

The two were first introduced by a friend of McNeil’s who is a trainer for Companion Canines for Independence. Pasha had been trained to work with another person but was sent back for “attitude adjustment.”

“If she doesn’t like you, she’ll make sure you know it in a hurry,” McNeil said of his companion. “She’s a little more intelligent than the dogs they usually use.”

But something about McNeil just clicked for the canine. In their first meeting, the handler brought the man into an open area and told him to ignore Pasha in order to accurately gauge the dog’s first reaction. When Pasha was let out of her kennel, she could have chosen to play with a group of other dogs, but her first reaction was to walk over to McNeil’s chair and heel.

“She’s one in a million. That’s what everybody tells me,” he commented.

Pasha knows several dozen commands, from opening and closing doors to paying for an order at the grocery store and flipping light switches. Each month, the woman who trained her comes for a social visit with one of her other trainees and the dogs learn another command together.

But besides various daily needs, Pasha also provides McNeil with companionship that he says gives him something to strive for.

“It’s a symbiotic relationship, a give and take,” McNeil explained.

The first week he owned Pasha, McNeil recalled discovering the true value their relationship. The two were out walking in heavy winds when a tree branch above their heads snapped, knocking McNeil out of his chair and dashing his head against the concrete. When he woke, Pasha was lying on top of McNeil, shivering and yelping to get the attention of passersby.

“That was my first inclination of what she could do for me,” McNeil commented.

And McNeil added that he’s gotten used to the stares and questions about his companion animal. He said he actually welcomes the opportunity to educate people about working animals, like that when they see a dog with a vest, they should ask before petting. In Pasha’s vest, he also carries information on the laws surrounding working animals and their access to public places that he uses to educate people.

The only thing, McNeil joked, is that when people see Pasha at work, he often has to play second fiddle to the animal.

“I used to go to Safeway and they’d say ‘Hi Dave’ and now when we go there, it’s ‘Hi Pasha,’” he explained.

McNeil first started visiting Poulsbo three years ago to take part in the Olympic Sailing Foundation’s community sailing program through an invitation from foundation member Matt Mikkelborg. McNeil later discovered Poulsbo’s own Jewel Box Theatre. The wheelchair access for the theater is through the same hallway as the chamber office, which is where McNeil met Martin a few weeks back. What started as a heated conversation about why Martin didn’t have the door open ended with him convinced McNeil that he and Pasha should come volunteer at the office.

At their volunteer job, Martin joked sometimes Pasha gets more attention than McNeil. She even has her own name plaque on the front office desk.

“But they’re both great volunteers. She talks a lot less than he does, which we’re thankful for,” Martin joked. “And I’m always telling him to walk with me and he kind of looks at me funny. So then I say ‘OK, roll with me.’”

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