Visitors to the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech's Open House recently packed one of the college's auditorium style classrooms to witness Omega Tau Sigma's annual Service Dog of the Year award presentation.

The 2008 winner was Ellie, a black Labrador retriever that was trained by the St. Francis of Assisi Service Dog Foundation in Roanoke, Va.

“I’m so proud of [Omega Tau Sigma]for having come up with this idea,” said Carol Willoughby, founder of the St. Francis of Assisi Service Dog Foundation, noting that the award was being presented for the 12th time.

A formal oil portrait of Willoughby’s service dog named Booker, painted by artist Mark Young, hangs in the lobby of the college’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital (

“We’ve come a long way,” said Willoughby, concerning service dogs and service dog training programs. “But we’re still the new kids on the block.”

Willoughby then proceeded to detail the origins of service dog training programs in the United States. In 1974, she said, a California special education teacher named Bonnie Bergen was traveling in Asia and she noticed how dogs were helping some disabled individuals lead productive lives.

“She suddenly got the idea that maybe dogs could help people in wheel chairs,” said Willoughby. Bergen returned to the United States and took a job in a kennel for $2 an hour where she began working with dogs.

One day, Willoughby said, an elegant woman who had heard of the work that Bergen was doing, drove up in a Rolls Royce and presented her with a check for $10,000. That private gift provided the foundation of what has grown into a major national training effort. The first service dog, a Labrador named Abdoul, was placed in 1976, she said.

Booker came into Willoughby’s life in 1986, and was named the American Animal Hospital Association’s National Service Dog of the Year in 1988. Inspired by her relationship with Booker and the need to create opportunities for others, Willoughby established the St. Francis of Assissi Service Dog Foundation in 1996.

“The fundamental value of a service dog is not physical, it is spiritual,” said Willoughby. “They open doors for people. They give them hope. That is what a service dog does.”


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