April 28, 2008

Disabled Kids Bond With Their New Best Friends

Money27_therapy_mhd_den Ilana27_therapy_mhd_den Leaning slightly forward in her wheelchair, Lani Gutman slapped her palm against the top of a concrete garbage can and -- for the third time -- issued a command to Frasier.

''Drop it!'' said GutmaLove27_therapy_mhd_den n, her voice rising a notch while Frasier, her Golden Retriever, continued to hold the paper coffee cup delicately between his teeth.

A few feet away, trainer Janet Severt watched with a keen eye as Gutman, 19, practiced with her new service dog -- one of three canines paired up with disabled South Florida youngsters to help them start new, more independent chapters in their young lives.

''If you're not getting the commands out fast enough, he's just going to blow you off and keep chewing the cup,'' said Severt, rolling her wheelchair alongside Gutman's.

The teen repeated the command, more calmly and clearly this time, and Frasier obligingly dropped the cup in the garbage as Gutman beamed.

For the past 10 days, Gutman and two other youngsters who use wheelchairs have gone through an intensive training program with their service dogs -- companions that will guide, protect and assist their human partners with a range of skills that include flipping light switches, retrieving dropped items and fetching phones in an emergency.

The dogs are bred and trained through the Orange City-based New Horizons Service Dogs, which places service dogs with disabled partners throughout the state. This week marks the first time the organization has worked with kids in South Florida.

The dogs have already been through their own stringent training. The kids, however, were another matter.

''The dogs already know everything, but the kids didn't know a thing,'' said Severt, executive director of New Horizons. ``The first day was mass confusion.''

The sessions, which end Sunday, take place inside a classroom tucked on the third floor of the Village of Merrick Park. One wall is nearly covered with the dozens of commands the kids must learn to forge a working partnership with their dogs.

''I really push the kids hard so they know the commands like second nature,'' said Severt, who has been in a wheelchair since suffering a blood clot on her spine at age 7. 'I tell them `If I can do it, you can do it.' ''

Severt moves in seamless tandem with her own dog, a giant of a Golden Retriever named Cyprus, who also happens to be the father of two of the dogs in the class: Gutman's pooch Frasier, and Kaplan, whose new owner is 11-year-old Juan Mansilla.

''He's great,'' said Juan, a fourth-grader at Kensington Park Elementary who has cerebral palsy. ``He opened doors for me, picked up the remote control.''

His mother, Claudia Mansilla, watched from a distance as her son maneuvered his motorized wheelchair across the mall's balcony, Kaplan by his side.

''He told me he wants to do things without mami and papi,'' said Mansilla. ``We really thank God for this.''

According to Assistance Dogs International, a coalition of not-for-for profit organizations that train and place dogs, there are more than 19,000 dogs in the United States and Canada dedicated to assisting the disabled in various capacities -- such as guide dogs for the blind, ''hearing'' dogs for the deaf and service dogs such as those in training this week in Coral Gables.

All member groups, such as New Horizons, are not-for-profits that must foot the bill for training the dog. New Horizon's expenses run about $20,000 per dog -- including extensive training and medical screenings. They're given to clients free of charge.

The ADI recommends both dogs and their human partners be vetted.

''Not all people are suitable, and not all dogs are suitable,'' said Corey Hudson, president of Assistance Dogs International/North America, who said owners must be able to feed and care for the dog, or have someone in the household who can.

''And you need a dog that's not going to be distracted by a butterfly when they're crossing the street with someone in a wheelchair,'' he said.

The prospect of some measure of independence is a main attraction of partnering with a service dog, especially for young adults and teens eager to strike out on their own.

''This is going to change his life,'' said Tim Sticco as his 17-year-old son Corey practiced commands with Nutmeg, a black Labrador. Corey, a junior at Everglades High in Broward, was diagnosed with a brain tumor when he was 7, said his dad.

''It's been hard for him. He remembers what it was like to be a normal kid -- playing hockey, running around,'' said Sticco, who confessed to getting misty-eyed as he watched his son train. ``We thought at first it would offer companionship, but as I see what these dogs can do I'm just amazed.''

There is a learning curve for the parents as well, said Severt.

The basic edict: No coddling of children or dogs.

''It's really the first time in their lives these kids are having to be responsible without mom there jumping in,'' said Severt. ``And it gives mom a break, and maybe lets her feel that her child can go off and do some things on their own, safely.''

The dogs, while well-trained and adorable, are not pets -- a dictum everyone in the household, including parents and siblings, must adhere to in the first crucial weeks.

For the Gutman family, welcoming Frasier into their Roads home is one of several milestones this year.

Lani Gutman, who also has cerebral palsy, recently graduated high school and had surgery to improve her vision. Previously legally blind, she is now looking forward to getting her learner's permit and attending Miami Dade College this fall.

The dogs will officially take residence in their new homes this weekend. The dog-owner teams will likely need follow-up instruction as the kids move on through high school and college.

But the bonds, notes trainer Chris Tejcek, are already noticeable.

''The first time the dog looks at a kid and makes that connection, it's just profound,'' said Tejcek. ``I mean, what more does a kid want than a dog? And what more does a dog want than a kid?''



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This is pretty amazing..having companion as well as your guide and buddy specially for this kid that being disabled. This is really a great idea for you to be able to feel that your secure and always not alone. Like what i have experiencing of having a dog. she is my life, my friend and my baby. goodluck to you kid and hope you always a have a nice time with your lovely golden..

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