Six years ago, Randy Wight was paired with an unusual kind of medicine: a labrador retriever named Niosh.
Niosh is one of thousands of dogs that are bred by the Santa Rosa-based nonprofit Canine Companions for the sole purpose of enhancing the lives of people with disabilities. The nonprofit breeds, trains and then pairs the service dogs with the candidate. In a sense, Niosh was born to give Wight a better life.
As a former U.S. Navy aviator, Wight has been through a lot. During his 22 years of service, he was deployed seven times. After the Vietnam War, and once he retired, he suffered from a spinal cord injury. The first time he injured his back was during active duty, but years later he fell in a hotel room and bumped his head, triggering incomplete paraplegia.
“I can move and I can walk, basically I can do all the things necessary,” Wight says – but he has trouble keeping his balance, and it’s painful for him to bend down or kneel.
Since Niosh and Wight were matched in 2012, life has been safer and more efficient. Niosh helps Wight keep his balance, and responds to specific commands to bring Wight the towel when he gets out of the shower. When Wight drops something on the floor, Niosh picks it up and delivers it to him.
But more than anything, Niosh has helped Wight emotionally.
“It is more calming, a release of tension and emotion,” Wight says. “We had dogs before, but this is like a pet on steroids – all the benefits of a pet, plus more.”
This year through Monterey County Gives!, Canine Companions is seeking funds to reach out to the Monterey County military community to help more service members and veterans like Wight.
“Since the recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, we have seen an uptick of veterans in need of our services,” Canine Companions spokesperson Michelle Williams says.
Wight, who lives in Marina and says it took him two years from the time he learned about the program to apply, sees a need for more local outreach.
“There are a lot of veterans out there who would benefit from it, but they are a lot like me,” Wight says. “I am independent, and I thought there were people who were more in need of a service dog. I think most veterans are like that, they don’t want to take it away from someone else who they think might need it more.”