Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 10, 2012

By Sarah Campbell SPENCER — Being both wheelchair bound and legally blind doesn’t stop Stillwater from coming and going as he pleases.
He just does it with a little help from a friend.
Instead of climbing into a car, the Spencer resident stays put in his motorized chair where he dresses his service dog Molly in a bright yellow harness before they head down the ramp connected to his apartment .
The two travel down the sidewalks along Fourth Street almost daily, stopping to shop at Family Dollar, dining at The Lunch Box and checking in at the Spencer Library.
Although Stillwater, a member of the Nipmuc tribe, can only see about 3 feet in front of him, he’s never afraid with Molly by his side.
“She does an excellent job helping me while I’m out there,” he said. “One time, there was a truck parked across the sidewalk and, of course, I didn’t see the truck so I tried to keep going, but she just stopped and wouldn’t go any further.
“If it hadn’t been for her, I would have run right into the truck.”
Meeting Molly
Stillwater and Molly have been inseparable since they met about four months ago, but it took a while for the pair to end up together.
When Freda Snyder, a teacher assistant at Hurley Elementary, found Molly and her litter of puppies in the woods near her home, the mother dog was a bit hesitant to mingle with people, sometimes growling and refusing to leave her spot.
That’s when she enlisted the help of Glenn Sherrill, the music teacher at Hurley who trains dogs professionally through his business Train, Play, Live.
Sherrill gave Snyder advice on how to win Molly’s affection, and within three days, she was able to coax the dog out of the woods.
From there, Molly went into foster care through Faithful Friends Animal Sanctuary, where she spent about a year undergoing heartworm treatment.
While Molly was waiting for a forever home, Stillwater was searching for a dog to help him get around.
He was shot down after applying for a guide dog.
“They said I rely too much on my eyesight, that I needed to apply for a service dog,” he said. “Then I applied for a service dog and they told me I needed a guide dog.”
Not knowing where to turn next, Stillwater called the Rowan County Animal Shelter, which put him in touch with Faithful Friends.
Within days, Molly was at Stillwater’s house for a test run before she moved in permanently.
Now it was Stillwater’s turn to seek out Sherrill for help, making the connection through Faithful Friends.
“She would come over and sniff me and let me pet her, but she would always gravitate back to Stillwater and she had only been with him two days,” Sherrill said about his first meeting with the canine.
Training process
It didn’t take long for Sherrill to get to work training Molly to meet Stillwater’s needs.
First he taught her how to target, a technique used to get a dog’s attention.
Then Stillwater coached Molly on how to get up and down the ramp and through the door of the apartment.
“She had trouble with the ramp in the beginning. She just didn’t like it,” Stillwater said. “But she’s gotten used to that.”
Next, Sherrill taught Molly how to handle elevators and deal with being around other dogs.
“Dogs only react to the fear of the unknown, so once they are introduced to something new they start to adapt,” he said.
Sherrill said training Molly has been relatively easy thanks to Stillwater’s demeanor.
“He’s actually very calm and what I would call an assertive leader,” Sherrill said. “If Stillwater has to tell her a command two or three times, he remains calm.
“He loves Molly and shows her affection, but he shows her affection at the right time. When she’s anxious, he doesn’t stroke and pet her — He keeps a, ‘we’re going to do this’ attitude.”
After Molly mastered her everyday commands, Sherrill helped Stillwater go through the state Department of Health and Human Services to get her certified as a service dog, giving him the necessary paperwork to take her anywhere he likes.
Meant to be
Molly still has the pellet in her ear from when she was shot before Snyder found her.
And Stillwater, a veteran who served two years in the U.S. Coast Guard, has been wheelchair bound since a group of three men robbed him one night in Roanoke Rapids, breaking his pelvis bone and inflicting a variety of other injuries.
“They kept kicking me, I guess because I only had $15 on me,” he said.
His blindness is hereditary, a trait passed down from his father’s side of the family.
Sherrill said there were other opportunities for Molly to be adopted, but for “whatever reason it didn’t happen.”
“She’s been through a whole lot in her life, and he’s been through a whole lot in his life, and now they are together,” he said. “It just proves she was meant to be with this guy.
“This is the perfect situation because Molly needs somebody as strong as Stillwater.”
More than aservice dog
Molly’s off the clock when she’s hanging out with Stillwater around the apartment.
When he takes off her yellow harness, she knows it’s time to just be a dog.
“It’s just me and her, so she’s great company,” Stillwater said.
But that doesn’t mean she lets her guard down.
“If I go into the kitchen, she’s right behind me,” Stillwater said. “She seems to be afraid I’m gong to run away, but I’m not that silly. I know I’ve got a good dog.”
When Stillwater heads to bed at night, Molly hops on the foot, but when he wakes in the morning he finds her asleep in her dog bed on the floor.
“It’s like she goes up there and waits for me to go to sleep and then she gets down,” he said. “She’s a wonderful girl.”
Contact reporter Sarah Campbell at 704-797-7683.