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Community: Four-legged freedom for the disabled

Four-legged freedom

When Jennifer Arnold founded Canine Assistants in Milton, Ga. 20 years ago, she did so with people like Kelly McMahon in mind. Born with spinal muscular atrophy, the Las Vegas resident can’t walk and has limited use of her arms. At the same time, McMahon is bright, driven and, as it happens, good with animals.

“This was a young woman who was struggling to be as independent as she possibly could be, and who had this great attitude,” Arnold says of McMahon. Canine Assistants places carefully trained dogs with people like McMahon, who can benefit from their help. An assistant can, say, open a door and pull a wheelchair through it — then turn on the lights once inside. McMahon’s assistant is a golden retriever named Pele.

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“I’m constantly dropping things,” she says. “I work at the Southern Nevada Center for Independent Living, so you can imagine what it would be like having to go find someone every time I drop my pen.”

McMahon now heads Canine Assistants’ local volunteer group, Noah’s Team. Although the supply of trained dogs lags behind demand, people are still encouraged to apply. Canine Assistants assigns dogs based on need, and the organization is looking to give a boost to people interested in starting their own dog-training facilities.Arnold says this would help her nonprofit’s ability to help clients — which it does at zero cost to the client. McMahon is humbled by how much Arnold and Pele have improved her life.

“He’s my best friend in the world,” she says. “I don’t know what I’d do without him.” To contact Canine Assistants, email McMahon at — Heidi Kyser

Desert Companion welcomed Heidi Kyser as staff writer in January 2014. In 2018, she was promoted to senior writer and producer, working for both DC and State of Nevada. She produced KNPR’s first podcast, the Edward R. Murrow Regional Award-winning Native Nevada, in 2020. The following year, she returned her focus full-time to Desert Companion, becoming Deputy Editor, which meant she was next in line to take over when longtime editor Andrew Kiraly left in July 2022.