New Service Dog at Alderman Follows in Famous Forebear's Pawprints

Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Brevy Cannon:

July 15, 2010 — There's a new face at the University of Virginia's Alderman Library. He's not listed (yet) on the staff page for the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities on Alderman's third floor – he started only last week – but word of his arrival spread fast.

He replaces a staff member who was beloved and consistently brought a smile to everyone he encountered on his daily rounds.

Keswick is a yellow Labrador retriever. He's the new service dog of Robbie Bingler, a staffer at IATH who was left paralyzed below the shoulders in a BMX racing accident in 1987, when he was a sophomore at Charlottesville High School.

Bingler's former service dog, Harpo, a yellow Lab , died March 19 of lung cancer at age 10.

Harpo was by Bingler's side for more than seven years, picking up dropped pencils (or anything else that slipped from Bingler's sometimes tenuous grip), opening doors, pushing buttons, even delivering things to other people, like a credit card to a cashier.

Harpo also served as a social icebreaker for Bingler, who figured on an extra 15 minutes of travel time wherever he went to allow for people to greet Harpo and ask about him.

"People always love to see the dog and interact with him," Bingler said. Within two days of Harpo's debut at Alderman in 2003, Bingler had met everyone in the library.

Harpo became part of "the IATH family," said Bingler, who began working there as a computer programmer in 1996 at age 23, a month after graduating from U.Va. with a B.S. in computer science. He was recommended by one of his mentors at the School of Engineering and Applied Science, William Wulf, the AT&T Professor of Computer Science, who was instrumental in founding the institute.

"The department loves having a dog around," Bingler said. "It helps relax the atmosphere, and interacting with a furry friend helps folks de-stress when needed."

Harpo was always a morale-booster for the IATH staff, said Worthy Martin, the institute's co-director. At meetings, "it always brightened everyone's attitudes to be greeted by Harpo and then – after long technical discussions – to lighten up with hearty goodbyes."

The staff's affection was reflected in the IATH staff directory's description of Harpo:

Harpo, a native Virginian and highly trained service dog, provides the public face of IATH. His many skills include tracking tennis balls, exercising squirrels, inspecting wastebaskets, and distracting the staff during meetings. He is always cheerful, always happy to have visitors, never quarrels or offends, and has never made the server crash, which is indeed a unique achievement amongst IATH employees.

Harpo and Bingler were inseparable. Harpo even came along when Bingler was hospitalized a few years ago for bladder cancer surgery. There too, Harpo was a hit; a visit from Harpo calmed a patient across the hallway who had been crying for hours.

Less than three weeks after Harpo's first lung cancer symptoms appeared, he was euthanized to prevent further suffering before his imminent death.

The change was abrupt. "It was so odd. I was used to sitting in my living room, looking over to the right, and seeing him right there beside me," Bingler said. "It was quite a change, after having him there for so long. It was so quiet in the house, and my instinct was to play with him. That was tough."

Harpo's absence reminded Bingler of how much easier his life had been with Harpo's help. Bingler has very limited mobility below the shoulders, and is unable to pick up something from the floor.

"If I dropped something I had to wait for someone to come by and pick it up," said Bingler, who lives in an apartment attached to his parents' house in Charlottesville.

After a few weeks of mourning and coming to terms with Harpo's death, Bingler contacted Service Dogs of Virginia, the Charlottesville non-profit that had provided him with Harpo.

Bingler was their first client to need a replacement dog, so "he moved to the top of the list,” said Amber Capron, executive director of the group. Within two months, he was matched with 2 1/2-year-old Keswick, who had just completed the two-year training process.

Service Dogs of Virginia clients pay only $500 for a dog, while donations pay for the rest of the $18,000 required to purchase, raise, train and place a dog with a client, Capron said.

"We believe that need, rather than income, should determine who receives a dog," Capron said. "Many of our clients have tremendous medical expenses and would not be able to afford the cost of purchasing a service dog."

Several of Bingler's coworkers have donated to the group through the annual Commonwealth of Virginia Campaign, the state's workplace-giving program.

"Working with Service Dogs of Virginia has been great," Bingler said.

Harpo was the perfect match to Bingler's temperament – calm and relaxed, a "couch potato" who didn't need to run around much, Bingler said. Keswick is similar, spending much of the workday stretched on the floor under Bingler's desk. But when coworkers take him out for daily walks, he tends to get a bit more excited than Harpo did, sometimes returning ready to play with the stuffed dog toys that also live under Bingler's desk.

"Kes," as Bingler calls him, is less of a food lover than Harpo, who had a habit of "counter-surfing" when Bingler wasn't looking.

"But he wouldn't eat food he found on counters. He knew he wasn't supposed to have it," Bingler said. Instead, Harpo would carry the food in his mouth and then sheepishly show Bingler what he'd found.

Keswick has a love for chewing sticks into tiny pieces, leading Bingler to joke that he should lend Keswick out to the city crews that are chipping up all the brush and branches brought down in the recent microburst.

The IATH staff is already getting used to Keswick's distinct personality. Like Harpo, "he's filling the 'mood-lifter' role very nicely," Martin said. "And we are looking forward to having him in the IATH family for quite some time."

"I'm not trying to replace Harpo," Bingler said. "But it's nice to have such a great match. Kes has some big shoes to fill, because Harpo was so beloved and popular with so many people. But he's fitting in well and people are enjoying having him around. Especially me."

-- by Brevy Cannon