photograph by Jeff Janowski

On a cold, rainy December night in 1996, Rick Hairston plucked a black Lab puppy — “the biggest and most wiggly in the pile” — from a litter of 13, and named him Moses.

Hairston had recently moved to Wilmington from St. Louis, Missouri, where he’d volunteered with a service dog organization. Finding no such group in North or South Carolina, he decided to start one, and cofounded Canines for Service in order to train service dogs to help disabled adults and wounded and traumatized veterans navigate their days and live independently. Moses became the founding pup for the organization. As the poster dog — and demonstration dog, therapy dog, and Paws for Reading Dog — Moses covered half a million miles, and met senators; congressmen; and men and women of all ages, sizes, and shapes before he died in 2011.

After 2,500 hours of training, a service dog knows 90 commands and is worth $40,000. He can pull a manual wheelchair, retrieve a bottle from the fridge, unload the dryer, and pick up something as small as a pierced earring back or a penny — and something as large as a 10-pound weight. He can serve as a brace for his owner when he or she falls. For someone with degenerative disc disease, these actions are lifesavers — or, at the very least, back-savers. For owners with emotional issues, therapy dogs are a comfort, a living buffer between the stressful world and their mental state: Part of a dog’s training involves merely sitting or resting for hours at a time while their “person” naps, or attends a meeting.

Every dog lover knows that look: the liquid eyes and curious head tilt that asks, What next? How else can I unconditionally love you? For Canines for Service dogs, unconditional love is merely one entry on their résumés.

This story appeared in print as “Man’s Best Friend, and More.” 

This story was published on

Susan Stafford Kelly was raised in Rutherfordton. She attended UNC-Chapel Hill and earned a Master of Fine Arts from Warren Wilson College. She is the author of Carolina Classics, a collection of essays that have appeared in Our State, and five novels: How Close We Come, Even Now, The Last of Something, Now You Know, and By Accident. Susan has three grown children and lives in Greensboro with her husband, Sterling.