We unleash the potential of shelter dogs by transforming them into custom-trained, life-changing assistance dogs for people in need.

In Memory of Michael Roche

mike roche

Freedom Service Dogs Co-Founder, Michael Roche (1952 – 2016)

The Freedom Service Dogs family is mourning the recent passing of one of our founders, Michael P. Roche. He and his late wife, PJ founded Freedom Service Dogs in 1987, establishing a legacy that we are proud to carry on. View Michael’s obituary.

Several years ago, a member of the Freedom Service Dogs team and her husband joined friends Mike and Flower for dinner. During their time sharing stories, it was revealed that Mike had interviewed Michael and PJ Roche in the spring of 1991. As a student at Colorado State University, Mike created a video about Freedom Service Dogs for a project, which can be viewed below. Several days later, he sent a copy of the interview to Freedom Service Dogs. Since some of our historical records have been misplaced over the years, this information was very special to us, and we are honored to share it with friends of Freedom Service Dogs.

The Story of Freedom Service Dogs

Interview transcript from October 6, 2001:

As of June 1, 2001, both PJ and Mike Roche have retired from Freedom Service Dogs, Inc.  Few people have a better grasp of freedom, independence, and service than does Michael Roche.  As an active young man in his mid 20’s, Mike enjoyed mountain biking, hiking, and flying, and worked as a Paramedic Field Instructor.  In 1978, while treating a patient en route to the hospital, Mike’s ambulance was broad-sided, leaving him with a broken neck and paralyzed from the chest down – a quadriplegic.

Mike endured arduous physical rehabilitation and occupational therapy sessions.  Fiercely independent, he insisted on a manual wheel chair to build his strength and learned to drive a van with hand controls.  He became a computer programmer/analyst.  Still, he had to depend on others to push elevator buttons, pick up dropped keys, papers, etc., and often needed a personal attendant to accompany him.

Enter PJ Burrous, a dog trainer, and her Border Collie, Oreo.  PJ saw Mike’s frustration when he dropped something or needed an object out of reach, and taught Oreo to pick up the item.  Before long, Oreo stayed with Mike while PJ was at work, each learning and teaching the other about independence and service.  Oreo began to accompany Mike to work, retrieve dropped objects, and open doors in more ways than anyone could have imagined.  Friends at Craig Hospital marveled at the Mike-Oreo team, and asked Mike and PJ if they would train a dog for a young client in rehabilitation.  States PJ, “It was soon evident that it wasn’t just one dog that could change a life.”

Mike and PJ were married in March 1987 – PJ still insists it was only a ploy to keep Oreo – and founded Freedom Service Dogs, Inc. (FSD) in October 1987.  According to PJ, “It’s not a job about training dogs.  It’s a job about helping people and animals, and providing life-long support to the pair, like family members.”  They became active in Assistance Dog International (ADI), an organization that sets and promotes standards and ethics for the assistance dog training industry.  For 11 years, Mike served on the ADI Board of Directors as Secretary, Vice-President, and President.  He remains a respected authority in the organization and continues to help.

While vacationing in Las Vegas, Oreo was barred from entering a casino – a frustrating and all-too-common occurrence.  Mike researched the laws and found that some states’ access laws only applied to guide dogs.  Mike and PJ formed the Independence Assistance Dog Association to work with the Colorado Legislature and the National Conference of State Legislators.  Mike authored the Assistance Dog Model State Law and continues to compile and distribute the book Legal Rights of Guide Dogs, Hearing Dogs, and Service Dogs that summarizes the access laws of all 50 states.

Enter Denver, a young Golden Retriever found at the Denver Municipal Animal Shelter.  Trained to succeed Oreo, Denver had to fill some huge paw prints.  Beloved Oreo, the dog who started it all, died peacefully of old age at home in June 1994.  Denver rose to the challenge and became the first assistance dog at Denver International Airport and the first to sail on the Princess Cruise Line.  Colorado, another Golden Retriever, has continued the tradition by becoming a demonstration dog.

Mike says his greatest rewards are the friendships he has made, and seeing the working and loving bonds that form between clients and their service dogs.  He is most proud of the quality of the dogs that have been trained and placed, and most frustrated that not enough dogs can be trained to meet the needs of all the deserving clients.

Through Mike and PJ’s efforts, FSD has trained, and placed more than 70 dogs with people with mobility impairments.  They have tirelessly worked to prove that “Disabled does not mean unable; we help disabled people to be able.”

Click here to make a donation in memory of Michael Roche.

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