Big Dogs run with service dogs at annual golf tournament benefit

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(Editor’s note: Watch next week for an in-depth interview with Sue Thomas about her rise to stardom and a new television show based on her life.)

COLUMBIANA, Ohio – Throughout school year after school year filled with classmates’ ridicule, the last thing Sue Thomas ever thought she would be was a speaker.

Because she lost her hearing when she was 18 months old, Thomas had to go through a long process to learn to speak. And as she was learning, the children in her classes tormented her because of her “funny” speech patterns.

However, at her parents’ urging she went to a hearing and speech center and slowly learned to speak by imitating the vibrations she felt on her therapist’s throat.

Now Thomas is speaking to thousands, all over the United States and soon, throughout the world.

Spread the message. Thomas and her hearing dog, Grace, travel from their home in Columbiana, Ohio, to all walks of the United States to give motivational speeches. The only “walk” of the United States where they can’t travel to easily is Hawaii. This is because Hawaii does not allow service dogs into the state without a mandatory three-month quarantine.

After her trip to Hawaii four years ago where she went through a grueling ordeal getting Grace into the state, Thomas decided to also take on the state’s regulations and is now representing hearing-dog activists. Her day in court will be Feb. 4.

Battling money. Because of the high cost of the lawsuit, Thomas started the Canine Classic, a golf tournament, three years ago. At this year’s golf tournament in Columbiana, Ohio, Thomas is hoping to raise $100,000 to help cover the legal fees involved with the class action lawsuit.

Thomas says when they win, and she knows they will, the money awarded to them will be evenly distributed between the approximately 70-75 service dog training facilities in the United States.

The process to train hearing dogs costs approximately $6,000. The dogs are free to deaf people who qualify for the assistance and are usually only placed in non-hearing homes.

This is the third Canine Classic. The past two years have raised a total of $28,000. However, this year’s event is an extra big deal because Big Dogs Sportswear of Santa Barbara, Calif., is the major sponsor.

Next time around. Thomas’ court case isn’t impossible to win. Seeing-eye-dog activists took their case to court 10 years ago and won. Although seeing-eye dogs are now allowed into Hawaii without a quarantine, the discrimination continues for other service dogs and the people they help, Thomas said.

Uphill fight. Thomas was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 18 months ago and has already applied for another service dog in case she ends up needing help walking or in a wheelchair. That might mean another case in court.

Even if Thomas and the hearing-dog activists win at their day in court, the decision will only benefit hearing dogs. Each type of service dog will have to sue the state separately unless Hawaii changes the law on its own.

Thomas said she hopes her case will automatically open Hawaii’s doors to all service dog and end quarantine laws.

Tee time. The four-person golf scramble will be at the Copeland Hills Golf Club in Columbiana, Ohio. The entry fee is $75 per golfer or $300 per team.

The fee includes 18 holes of golf with a cart, breakfast, lunch, dinner, a golf shirt and door prizes.

For more information call 330-482-3221 or 330-482-0645.

(You can contact Kristy Alger at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 23, or by e-mail at kalger@farmanddairy.com.)

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