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Service dog a Saviour to teen boy

February 14, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

Patrick and Mary Lou in class

Fourteen-year-old Patrick Maresh’s life has changed for the better when his service dog, Mary Lou stepped into it. Patrick and the 2-year-old Labrador/golden retriever mix have been constant companions since he received her as a canine assistant in July.

Patrick is nonverbal, has sensory issues and low muscle tone which meant he struggled to get around safely. Before Mary Lou’s arrival, Patrick was so afraid of being bumped into and knocked over, his mother, Jan Maresh, said. He would flatten himself against the lockers and not move out of fear. A specialist informed Jan Maresh that Patrick seemed to have an affinity with dogs and would benefit from having a service dog.


The Process

It took over four years of being on the waiting list before Patrick was able to have a service dog. Service dogs require a lot of training and, depending on their specialisation, are worth in excess of $25,000. After filling out a questionnaire, writing essays, gathering letters of recommendation and producing a DVD of Patrick’s developmental history, the Maresh family submitted an application to Canine Assistants, a Georgi0based organization that provides service dogs, in 2006. Soon after, they were notified that Patrick was on the list to become a recipient.

Whilst on the waiting list, the Maresh family took it upon themselves to dog-sit as many dogs as possible when friends and neighbours went on vacation. As they had never had a pet before, this was their opportunity to learn about dog care and to prepare themselves for the long-term commitment of having a dog. Service dogs in particular need a lot of attention paid to them for Canine Assistants to be satisfied the dog is being looked after well.

“They (Canine Assistants) take it very seriously. These dogs are a huge investment on their part,” Maresh said. Maresh said recipients enter a contract with the organization spelling out their responsibilities. For instance, recipients must weigh the dogs four times a year and submit the information to Canine Assistants. If they allow the dogs to become obese and fail to take action to solve the problem, the organization reserves the right to take the dogs back.

“Technically, this dog is on permanent loan,” Maresh said. “It’s a full commitment and it’s not something to take lightly.”

How Mary Lou chose Patrick

Finally, in July 2010 the Maresh family headed for the two-week training camp in Georgia, where Patrick would meet his canine companion. During the first two days, recipients are introduced to dogs that trainers have selected as potential matches for the individuals.

“The dogs really pick the recipients,” Maresh said. “The dogs can sense by your energy what your need is.” The dogs typically make their selection by putting their paws on a recipient’s lap and seemingly looking into their eyes, she said.

It took five dogs before one that seemed a perfect match was found. Once the selection is made, recipients work with the dogs and their trainers in the afternoons while attending lectures on dog management in the mornings. By the second week, they go on public outings with the dogs. The family are then required to take a final written exam before they graduate. The Maresh family passed successfully and Mary Lou came home with them.

Man’s best friend

The dog accompanies him to his special needs classroom at Herrick Middle School in Downers Grove, where she lies by him as he works and walks with him as he passes through the halls. Now he is able to walk down the halls confidently with Mary Lou by his side.

Patrick now goes with his family to watch his sisters participate in high school sporting events and cheerleading competitions. Previously, he wouldn’t enter the gym because of the sensory overload. “He’s able to tolerate a lot more,” his mother said. “Now he walks right. She’s at his side. We sit in the bleachers with everybody else.”

Maresh can’t explain it, but Mary Lou makes Patrick calmer. “He’ll pet her. He’ll interact with her. Then he can focus back on wherever we are,” she said.

Mary Lou has brought Patrick positive attention, his mother said, “He walks the dog and people say hello to him. It’s like his parade.” Maresh said Patrick enjoys the attention. Although Patrick always has been sociable, sometimes people would avert their eyes and not reciprocate, she said. “It’s almost like she brought people to him,” she said. “If you have a dog, everybody says hello. It’s just amazing.”

Maresh said Mary Lou will remain Patrick’s canine assistant during her working life of nine to 10 years. When a dog ages, the recipient has the option of applying for another service dog and keeping the older dog as a pet.

For information on Canine Assistants, visit its website at canineassistants.org.

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