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President George H.W. Bush Gets a Service Dog

Labrador Sully is one of many animals placed with veterans by America's VetDogs

President George HW Bush, President Bill Clinton and Bush's new service dog Sully

Evan Sisley

Former President George H.W. Bush welcomed two visitors to his Kennebunkport, Maine, home this week: former President Bill Clinton and Labrador retriever Sully, Bush's new service dog.

The Bush family added a valuable new member this week. A bright-eyed, eager yellow Labrador retriever named Sully will be a service dog for former President George H.W. Bush, the political clan's 94-year-old patriarch.

Sully — named after Chesley Sullenberger, the hero pilot who steered a jet with 155 passengers to a successful emergency landing on the Hudson River in 2009 — is able to perform a list of caregiving commands two pages long, including answering the phone, opening doors, summoning assistance, picking up dropped items and, of course, fetching.

Sully is one of 70 service dogs trained each year by America's VetDogs for placement with veterans. And he's one of 700 matched with veterans, active-duty service members and first responders since 2003, according to spokeswoman Allison Storck. 

The group, an offshoot of the Guide Dog Foundation, trains and places dogs with veterans who have physical disabilities, including blindness or low vision, those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and retired or active military members and first responders who have lost their hearing. The organization also provides facility dogs that help with rehabilitation at military and Veterans Administration hospitals.

But demand outpaces the supply of available dogs. Because of the training involved and research required to make the right match, the typical wait time for a service dog through VetDogs is two years. That aligns closely with the average wait time for service dogs across other organizations. Texas-based Service Dogs Inc., for example, tells those interested in service dogs to expect to wait as long as 2½ years from the day they submit an application to the day their service dog arrives.

Sully's new Instagram account, @sullyhwbush, amassed more than 26,000 followers in its first two days. 

It costs more than $50,000 and takes from 18 to 24 months to raise and train each assistance dog, but America's VetDogs offers its four-legged graduates to military members and first responders for free. Funding for the program comes mostly from donations, along with the occasional government grant. To keep costs to owners as low as possible, most groups that provide service dogs rely on donations. Once matched, the average annual cost of keeping a service dog is around $2,000.

sully the service dog

America's VetDogs/Rebecca Eden

Service dogs like Sully can perform all kinds of daily tasks, including pulling a wheelchair, turning on lights and picking up dropped objects as small as a dime.

Sully's placement at the Bush home in Kennebunkport, Maine, serves a dual purpose: He'll provide valuable assistance to the former president, who uses a wheelchair and in recent months has battled various health conditions, including a form of Parkinson's disease and a blood infection for which he was hospitalized shortly after his wife Barbara's death in April. Sully will also bring attention to the work done by service dogs, which are recognized under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as animals that have been specially trained to assist a disabled person. On that front, he's already a social media star: Sully's new Instagram account, @sullyhwbush, amassed more than 26,000 visitors in its first two days. 

Beyond the ADA, there are few federal guidelines surrounding service dogs, which are distinguished from emotional support animals because they have been trained for specific tasks related to each owner’s disability. According to Assistance Dogs International, assistance dogs fall into one of three classifications: guide dogs, which help the blind and visually impaired; hearing dogs for the deaf and hard of hearing; and service dogs, which help those with disabilities other than vision and hearing to navigate their daily lives. 

Sully fits the third category. His trainers expect him to provide a boost to President Bush’s routine, though in welcoming him to the staff, family spokesman Jim McGrath pointed out that even the most dedicated service dog has limits.

"He can do just about anything except make you a martini," said McGrath. "But not to worry, he can go get you someone to make you a martini!"

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