Alda Owen was 60 years old when she got her first puppy.
Legally blind since the age of 10 and a recent breast cancer survivor, Alda had been struggling to figure out her future on the cattle farm she and husband, Rick, operate in Maysville, Mo. As she rode home in 2012 with the 9-week-old, newly named Sweet Baby Jo in her lap, Alda knew she was getting a second chance.
“After the chemo and double mastectomy, I was weak and mad and drained,” she said. “Getting Jo was quite the life changer.”
For 50 years, Alda had learned to work with her visual impairment, but the cancer and treatments were another story. She and Rick had farmed much of their lives together, but the illness further limited what she could do on the farm.
“He has always been a caregiver,” Alda said. “And at that time, he didn’t really want me to help on the farm because he was concerned about my health and safety.”
Not being able to help out and the lack of independence also took a toll on Alda emotionally, she said. She wanted to be a partner again. Knowing her mother’s internal struggle, Alda’s daughter, Kate, introduced her to PHARM Dog USA, which stands for Pets Helping Agriculture in Rural Missouri. The organization trains and places cattle dogs and service dogs with farmers who have disabilities. Established in 2005, the program became a 501(c)3 non-profit in 2012.
“The goal is to save the farmer time and energy,” PHARM Dog founder Jackie Allenbrand said. “We call them four-legged farm hands, because that’s really what they are.”
After bringing Sweet Baby Jo home, Alda worked with PHARM Dog’s trainers over the next year to equip the border collie with the herding skills necessary to help her on the farm. In the first year, Jackie and her trainers handle the basic commands and do simple exposure training exercises with the dogs, like riding in a truck. Alda followed the same protocol with Jo. After a year, they begin working with the dogs more intensely on specialized training.
Typically, dogs are at least 2 years old before they are matched with a farmer. According to Jackie, placing a puppy is unusual, but Alda said she knew it was meant to be that way.
“I can’t explain what she did for me mentally,” Alda said. “From that day forward, I was excited to get up. I wanted to take care of her. I wanted to take her out and work with her. It gave me purpose.”
Every dog’s training is a little different depending on the farmer’s needs. Border collies are trained to work with cattle and sheep, and Labradors learn service skills.
On the herding side, Jackie works with two trainers, Bobby Miller of Plattsburg, Mo., and Don McKay in Packwood, Iowa. For dogs trained with service skills, Jackie begins basic training on her own farm near Stanberry, Mo., then works with Sandy Rickey near Odessa for more specialized skills.
“We have some amazing trainers,” Jackie said. “Our border collies will learn directional commands like ‘way’ and ‘by,’ which moves the dogs to the right or left of the herd, and ‘walk up,’ where they will slowly move closer to the herd. The Labradors can be taught to retrieve tools, open gates, carry buckets or to brace and counterbalance for someone who may need that assistance.”
Life with limited vision
Alda lost most her sight at the age of 10 due to histoplasmosis, an infection caused by breathing in spores of a fungus transmitted through the droppings of birds and bats. The potentially fatal disease spread from her lungs to her ocular nerve.
“It was my job to take care of the chickens on my family’s farm,” Alda said. “That summer, the temperature and humidity were just right to form this fungus, and I ingested it.”
At the time, doctors told Alda’s parents she could take medication, but due to the side effects, she may only live into her mid-20s. Her other option was to do nothing with the likelihood that she would go blind or that the disease would lay dormant.
“The disease took parts of her vision,” Rick explained. “For instance, she may see a cup, but she may not see the handle.”
When Alda and Rick are out in public, he wears a specific type of hat so his wife can recognize him by the shape and silhouette.
“I can see some things,” Alda said. “I can see the shape of the trees, but I can’t see the distinct leaves or bark until I get right up to it and touch it. If we’re out in a field, a 300-pound calf may look like an evergreen tree or a multi-floral rose. I have no way of detailing until something moves or I get right up on it.”
A few years ago, Alda worked with Missouri Rehabilitation Services for the Blind to get specialized glasses and take a low vision driving test. She now has the ability to use an all-terrain utility vehicle around the 260-acre farm where she and Rick run a black Angus cow/calf operation.
“A lot of people don’t realize, but people with visual impairments memorize,” Alda said. “I have my comfort zone. I memorize the landscapes, but I’ve been here all my life. If you dropped me off in a city or even a hospital I didn’t know and asked me to find a specific room on a specific floor, there’s no way I’d be able to do it.”
Now 6 years old, Jo rides in the back of Alda’s ATUV while she does daily chores.
“Before Jo, if I had said, ‘I’m going to go move the replacement heifers from this lot over to this lot,’ not in a million years would Rick have been comfortable with that,” Alda said. “But the other morning, that’s what we did. Or we’ll go put mineral out, and he doesn’t have a worry in the world because he knows I have Jo with me.”
Both Alda and Rick have learned to take Jo with them for the protection she provides while they are working cattle.
“There was one time when we didn’t have her with us, and it cost me,” Rick said. “During calving season, I had a cow roll me. She hit me three times. By the third time, I thought I wasn’t going to live through it.”
“There has also been a time or two where she’s hopped out of the Kubota and herded a cow off,” Alda added. “She knew before we knew that it was going to happen.”
A PHARM Dog also provides added security for Troy Balderston, who raises row crops and backgrounds cattle with his wife, Sher’rie, on 240 acres near Beaver City, Neb. A 2010 car accident left Troy paralyzed from the neck down.
“I’m what is called quadriplegic incomplete,” Troy said, explaining that he has partial damage to his spinal cord on the C4, C5 and C6 vertebrae.
Since the accident, Troy worked to regain some function in his arms. He’s able to operate an all-terrain wheelchair and drive a tractor modified with hand controls. He works as a ranch hand at a nearby farm owned by Chris Harting across the Nebraska state line south of Norton, Kan.
Having had cattle dogs previously, Troy thought a dog might be able to help him both on his own farm and at his ranch job.
“We were working through VocRehab and Nebraska AgrAbility at the time,” Troy said. “I told them what I thought I needed. I knew I wanted a working dog. They found Jackie, and we’ve been good friends ever since.”
In 2013, Troy was introduced to Duke, a rescue dog donated by a family who found him on the streets in St. Joseph, Mo. When dogs such as Duke are ready to be placed, Jackie and the trainer travel to the farm to help the new owner grasp all the commands and make sure the pair will work well together.
“We want the dog to be helpful, not a hindrance,” Jackie said. “So we think it’s important to go to the farm and stay a couple of days to make sure they understand the basics and feel comfortable. When we got to Troy’s, there were seven or eight farm hands standing around plus me and the trainer, but when Duke got out of the car, he worked his way around all the people and landed right in front of Troy where he belonged.”
Since then, it has been a day-in, day-out partnership.
Duke now helps Troy sort and load heifers onto trailers for transport. Before, Troy had an incident in which cattle ran over him while he was in his chair. Now, if things go awry, Duke is there to help provide a buffer.
“He’ll keep me safe at work,” Troy said. “Sometimes the cattle will come back at you, and he’ll keep them away from me.”
Farming and raising livestock can be dangerous for anyone, but even more so when a person is at a physical disadvantage, Jackie said. PHARM Dogs can provide added safeguards.
“There was one day last summer when the girls and I got home from the pool and couldn’t find Troy,” Sher’rie said. “Our daughter, Brenna, noticed that the chain was off one of the gates, and it wasn’t supposed to be. It was 104 degrees that day, and we were driving around looking everywhere when Duke suddenly popped up over a hill. I said, ‘Duke, where’s Dad?’ and he took off back over the hill and led us to Troy. His wheelchair had gotten stuck, and he’d thrown himself out of it to lay in the shade next to the chair. He must have been out there for two or three hours in that heat.”
“Duke definitely helps me out every day,” Troy added.
A meaningful mission
The PHARM Dog program sustains itself exclusively through the efforts of its volunteers, donations and small grants Jackie writes.
“None of us makes a salary,” she said. “My goal was always that the farmer wouldn’t have to pay anything, but we do ask that once a dog has been placed with them that they make a donation back so we can continue to help other farmers.”
Jackie hopes one day they’ll be able to expand the program, pay their volunteers and build a training center to be able to use in the winter or during inclement weather.
“We’d love to have some type of corporate sponsorship, and I’ve had some ideas for that,” Jackie said. “But you get paid in other ways. One of my favorite quotes is, ‘If the only life you are worried about improving is your own, then you are truly not living life.’”
Since the program’s outset, PHARM Dog has placed 16 dogs with farmers throughout the Midwest.
“Our latest placement was in Sedalia,” Jackie said. “The farmer there only has use of one arm due to a PTO accident 29 years ago. He said when it happened, he was screaming and yelling and no one came. I asked him how someone finally found him, and he told me his neighbors had an old hound dog that heard him. The dog started howling and barking until they went over to find him. I said, ‘Don’t you think it is unusual that a dog saved you 29 years ago, and now you’re getting one to help you today?’ He told me, ‘Yeah, a dog was on my bucket list. I think we’re going to be pretty good partners.’ It’s those types of things that really touch you.”
Before Jo and PHARM Dog, Alda said she kept quiet about her disability. But now she’s one of the program’s greatest advocates and frequently attends events with Jo to help promote the organization.
“I never would talk about my vision or my cancer,” Alda said. “I had different jobs on and off, and I wouldn’t tell anybody at work. But, through Jackie’s encouragement and the exposure she’s given me, I’ve met so many people who have worse issues in life than I’ll ever care to. I don’t know how they do it, but the program has helped me get out of the closet and speak, hoping that I can help others understand. Every one of us will tell you we’re just so grateful to have the helping hand.”
To find out more about the PHARM Dog program or donate, visit www.pharmdog.org.