BEAR CREEK TWP. Pa. - Stephanie Cibello knew that one day, she would live her life in a wheelchair.

Cibello, 34, of Bear Creek Township, Luzerne County, was born with a degenerative bone disease. Her hips have been wearing away, and now they've disintegrated to the point where she rarely walks.

Knowing that her life would change, she began to prepare, and she learned about a program that could give her an assistant and friend.

Meet Dewalt.

He is a 2-year-old yellow Labrador and golden retriever mix, and he's Cibello's service dog.

Nonprofit organization Canine Companions for Independence, based in California, matched Dewalt with Cibello and trained the pair to work with each other during a two-week class in Medford, N.Y.

Dewalt can turn light switches on and off, open and close doors and retrieve dropped objects. He is Cibello's constant companion.

Canine Companions provides assistance dogs free of charge after rigorous training, said spokesman John Bentzinger.

The organization breeds Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers and crosses between those two types in California. When the puppies are eight weeks old, they go to a regional center and are adopted by volunteers.

Those volunteers train and socialize the animals until they're about 1½ years old, then the dogs go back to a regional center for six months of professional training. Only about 40 percent of the dogs make the cut for pairing with a human, Bentzinger said.

For those that meet the training standards, the next step is matching with a human and the two weeks of training that Cibello and Dewalt practiced together.

At the end of that training, the leashes are ceremoniously handed from the volunteer puppy trainer to the person matched with the dog, marking the beginning of a new relationship for dog and human.

Woody Inscoe, of Ijamsville, Md., and his family trained Dewalt from puppyhood until he went to the center and was eventually paired with Cibello.

They got the dog used to being around humans, traveling and learning some basic commands.

"The hardest part was having to turn him in. But it was also the heartwarming part," he said.

Dewalt is Cibello's second service dog. Her first was Kirk, who retired to become her pet after an ear infection changed his behavior.

She learned about the program through a cousin who also had a service dog.

"I couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe there were dogs that would do more than 50 commands for a person," she said.

The most frequent command she issues is "get," asking Dewalt to fetch something and bring it to her. He can assist pulling off socks and shoes if she needs the extra help, open and close doors and complete other tasks. He barks on command, which could alert other people around the pair in case of an emergency.

"One of the important things he does that I love is, my legs will start to shake from muscle fatigue. And instead of taking medication to stop it, I just call him over, I tell him to get on my lap, and then the pressure and the warmth from his body just relaxes my muscles, and it stops it. Oh my gosh, he does so much for me, it would take an hour just to go through everything," Cibello said.

The dogs have given her freedom that wouldn't have otherwise.

"The biggest change is me not asking people to do stuff for me. If I'm dropping things, I'm not asking my husband to 'Here, get this. Here, get that.' Or strangers, a lot of times strangers will try to come over and help me, and no, he's right there. He gives me independence from the world. I don't have to ask everybody for any help," she said.

People sometimes try to distract Dewalt from his work by calling out or touching him. Cibello wishes they would not do that. When his vest is on, he is at work, she said.

But when he's home and the vest is off, then he's off the clock.

Cibello recalled a recent trip to Baltimore to see an Orioles game.

Dewalt caught the attention of a young boy, and then another.

The boys knew each other. They began to tell Dewalt they were hungry.

The Cibellos bought them dinner and contacted ushers, who called police. They later learned the boys had left a group home.

"I'm so proud of my dog too, because it's like he knew. And they were just right there by his side," she said. "And he got them safe and they were safe when the police took them."

Contact the writer: bwellock@citizensvoice.com, 570-821-2051, @CVBillW

For more information about Canine Companions for Independence, visit www.cci.org.