Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Animals help those with Special Needs

“Feathers,” Our Dog-Eared Miracle

By Dana DeRuvo, R.N
When my son Nicholas, who has cerebral palsy, was 4, my other children, Rachel and Jackson, starting begging me for a puppy. Just what I needed.
As any parent of a child with special needs knows, so much time is spent going to doctor appointments, therapists, and school meetings – not to mention working at a job and parenting other children – there’s hardly any time left for anything else, especially something that needs to be fed, potty trained and cared for.
On the other hand, you still have to maintain some semblance of an emotionally healthy household. So I reluctantly started looking at dog possibilities. That’s when I came across Canine Companions for Independence (CCI).

How Dogs are Trained
Started in 1975, CCI trains golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers or cross breeds of the two to assist physically disabled individuals lead a more independent life. It is a non- profit organization that relies solely on private donations.

CCI gets its dogs from prearranged breeders. At about eight weeks of life, puppies are given to foster families, who teach the young dogs up to 50 commands. At about a year of age, the dogs are then sent to one of six CCI training centers across the country for “college level” training. At this point, the dogs are reevaluated as to temperament, health issues, and any other factor that the very experienced staff may decide rules them out as a companion dog. At about 18 months, the dogs attend a two-week program where they are matched with candidates.

How Families are Selected
To be selected as a match for a dog, Nicholas and I had to apply, be interviewed and be accepted. The criteria are fairly narrow and the process takes several months. There also can be a long waiting list. People selected for a dog also have to go through training and be evaluated for how well they work with the dog. For more information about applying for a dog, visit

We only had to pay $50 for the application process, even though these dogs are valued at over $50,000 after all the training is done!

Since Nicholas was five years old at the time, he was one of the youngest recipients in the country to be accepted and matched with a CCI dog. We had to attend a very extensive and exhausting two-week training program. It was more intense for me than attending nursing school. But it was worth it when we were matched with our beautiful golden retriever.

“Feathers” became my fourth and best child. In so many ways, Feathers and Nicholas were alike. They only wanted to give and receive love. They also both had frequent ear infections.

Nicholas was acutely ill the first five years of his life. When Feathers came into our lives, it brought a sense of “normalcy.” After all, we were now just a typical family with a dog! We started celebrating joyful times. I felt like a new mother all over again, bonding with Feathers the moment I laid eyes on her. This also allowed my family to begin to heal after so many years of living with Nicholas’ illnesses.

We were lucky enough to meet Feathers’ “foster mother,” Robin, who raised her and taught her basic commands. Robin presented us with a photo album any parent would be proud of: in it were Feathers’ baby teeth and pictures of her wearing the yellow cape that symbolized her as a puppy-in-training. (A CCI “graduate dog” wears a blue cape).

Working with Feathers

One of the most difficult tasks I had when we were out with Feathers was explaining to people that when she was wearing her cape she was “working,” and could not be petted or given treats unless given the command. Be sure if you see a dog with a cape that you ask the owner’s permission before you approach the dog or touch it.

We often took Feathers to restaurants. Sometimes the seating host would warn that dogs weren’t allowed, but when I explained that Feathers was “working,” they let us through. Sometimes they even brought water for her. These dogs have full Americans with Disability Act (ADA) rights and can go on a plane, inside restaurants or movies theaters as long as they accompany their owner.

Feathers’ main job was to be a companion to Nicholas. She would lie close to him so he could touch her. If a toy was dropped, she picked it up. When I threw a ball, she would retrieve it and drop it in Nicholas’ lap. On the way to school, Feathers would also go up to the most disabled child on the bus and lay her head in his or her lap. She sensed how much joy and calm she brought.

My children and I quickly became popular on the volunteer speaking circuit. We took Feathers to each of their classrooms and schools and talked about CCI. Everyone enjoyed the presentations, but Feathers was always the highlight as she proudly performed a few tasks for the eager students.

At the end of the sessions, Feathers would lay calmly while the children gathered around to pet her. Even the most fearful child was transformed by her gentle nature. We expanded our speaking locations to include as many religious organizations and community events as were willing to listen to us talk about CCI experience and Feathers.

Now I get to share my experience with Cerebral Palsy Family Network, which provides so many good resources and information to families touched by CP.

Feathers Drew People to Nicholas

One of the most powerful lessons I first learned about having a child in a wheelchair was that people, adults especially, would want to approach us but they weren’t sure how to do it appropriately.

Children were better. They would just come up and ask questions. I never minded this, since it gave me an opportunity to answer their questions accurately. But once we had Feathers, it broke all barriers and people would willingly approach us.

Feathers was like a magnet. People would come up and start asking questions and engaging with Nicholas. Nicholas would smile and laugh, which would engage them even more, and they would start talking to him, pointing out his beautiful smile and soft skin. This kind of interaction was terrific for Nicholas, and also gave me a chance to talk about cerebral palsy and CCI.

When President Clinton’s chocolate Labrador, Buddy, passed away, I sent him a letter telling him of all the great work that CCI does. I suggested that he consider being an ambassador for them. I received back a thoughtful letter saying how lucky I was to have my family and Feathers and how you never know what direction life will take you. My letter “from Bill” is hanging prominently in my home.

Feathers died September 23, 2009, at the age of 12 and a half. I will never understand why Nicholas had to endure so much pain and suffering in his life, but I do know that having Feathers in our lives also brought a lot of love and joy.

Dana is a nurse and lives in New York. She has published a memoir, The Ties that Bind, One Family’s Journey of Compassion with a Special Needs Child. Her son, Nicholas, is now 18.

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