Human Interest

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The gate to Fran Elliott?s Sedona acreage opens and an incoming vehicle is greeted by a half-dozen blurs of yellow incited by wagging tails and shaking hindquarters — excited and panting golden retrievers approach the car from all sides.

By Nate Hansen
Larson Newspapers

The gate to Fran Elliott?s Sedona acreage opens and an incoming vehicle is greeted by a half-dozen blurs of yellow incited by wagging tails and shaking hindquarters — excited and panting golden retrievers approach the car from all sides.

Elliott, a 20-year resident of Sedona, is the director of the Hairy Angel Foundation. The purpose for her organization is to provide service dogs for autistic children.

Elliott appears on the circular driveway. With a kind command followed by praise, she calls the dogs to return and heel.

?Welcome,? Elliott says, smiling.

Peabody, a female puppy, leans into a stranger?s leg, yearning for attention.

Pet her, Elliott encourages. These service dogs thrive on love, she says.

Elliott?s foundation incorporated as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in Sedona 12 years ago. It began after she discovered the comforting benefits an autistic child received from one of her furry friends.

She says she can?t explain the connection, but for some reason the golden retrievers and children find a common bond.

?They provide unconditional love, exercise, a sense of responsibility, protection and are used by the children?s therapists in animal assistive therapy,? Elliott adds.

Gary DeGeronimo Sr. is the shelter manager for Humane Society of Sedona. In addition to his duties with various breeds of animals at the shelter, he trains the foundation?s ?puppy raisers.?

Puppy raisers are the surrogate parents and supply a foster home until training is complete and the puppies are placed with families in need.

Elliott says puppy trainers are located in Sedona, Scottsdale and as far away as South Carolina.

Carol Browne, from Dallas, is raising her fourth service dog, Pumpkin.

?Autistic kids have a tough time hooking up emotionally but, somehow, the kids and the dogs have a connection,? Browne says proudly.

?The key is to understand the dogs and the process,? Elliott begins.

There?s a three-month period of housebreaking that Elliott is in charge of at her Stoneman Lake property. Afterward, the golden retriever puppies are given to puppy raisers.

Once the puppy raisers receive the basics from DeGeronimo, it?s up to the temporary owners to spend adequate time with the dogs to develop ?socialization.?

Elliott says the dogs need to learn to go into restaurants, movie theaters and travel on airplanes — anywhere an autistic child or family would venture.

?Bed-training? is an advantage that Browne trains her dogs to perform, she says. She says autistic children have the tendency to get out of bed in the middle of the night, but with the dog in bed with them, they have a better chance of staying put and safe.

Fortunately, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 allows puppy raisers to take service dogs everywhere. Elliott says it?s against the law to discriminate against a person due to a service dog, regardless if it?s an animal in training.

The service dogs wear vests which can signal to others some children have special needs and tolerance may be required, she adds.

Elliott urges people living in single-family households with one or no pets to take on the cause.

?Intimate settings are perfect,? she says.

According to Elliott, the Hairy Angel Foundation is one of two organizations in the nation to breed, raise and train golden retrievers for this purpose.

The foundation is also an all-volunteer organization and first in the United States to provide the service at no charge.

More than two decades ago, Elliott worked for an organization in New Jersey that bred golden retrievers as service dogs for blind people.

She left shortly after realizing the organization was charging up to $35,000 per service dog.

?This is done out of love, not an agenda,? Elliott says.

Elliott?s foundation doesn?t pay any salaries, nor does it apply for grants. Elliott says she feels it?s wrong to profit from a service that is necessary and should be free.

The Hairy Angel Foundation advertises strictly by ?word-of-mouth.?

According to Elliott, there isn?t a Web site nor any promotional material floating around to advertise. The organization isn?t even listed in the phonebook.

Elliott admits she ?bribes? puppy raisers by giving them a golden retriever from the next litter once their puppy is placed in a home.

This is how Browne happily received her ?keeper puppy,? Elbie.

Since the beginning, Elliott can proudly say she is the great-great-grandmother to golden retrievers servicing autistic children around the nation.

Families with children diagnosed with autism, called ?Forever Families,? are located in Los Angeles, Virginia, Maryland, New Mexico and Colorado.

This March and April, Elliott will place seven of the foundation?s last 13 puppies with their Forever Families. She says that in April and May, the current graduating class of ?goldens? will go to families in Phoenix and Prescott.

Although she is aiding families everywhere, she says she wants to make sure Sedona families are aware of what the organization offers.

Whether a puppy raiser or family in need, the Hairy Angel Foundation is begging to make a difference.


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