Giving a helping paw

Service: Dog receives training to assist a Carroll County teen who has cerebral palsy.

October 20, 2003|By David Anderson | David Anderson,SUN STAFF

By August, Robin Haines was at her wits' end. Nautica, the dog she had adopted in May from the Humane Society of Baltimore County to assist her 15-year-old son, was disobedient.

Then came the breakthrough. One night, her son Bryan Miller, who has cerebral palsy, had a seizure. Haines entered his bedroom and saw Nautica standing on Bryan's bed staring at him, as if to make sure he was all right.

"That was the first real good sign," said Haines, 41, as she sat outside her Sykesville home, watching Bryan and Nautica play tug-of-war with a rope ball. "What we were saying finally sunk in."

Now, two months after the incident, boy and dog are inseparable. That is critical to Nautica's job, said Laura Totis of Dog Ears and Paws, a Sykesville nonprofit group that trains assistance dogs.

Nautica, a Rottweiler and cattle dog mixed breed, is in the early stages of training. The process can take up to two years. Totis said Nautica has "potential."

But, she added: "There's no guarantee that Nautica will be an assistance dog."

Bryan recently transferred to a public high school, and Haines hopes that if Nautica completes assistance training, she will be right there with him, lying at his feet in the classroom. If Bryan has a seizure, her job will be to find help. According to the Dog Ears and Paws Web site, assistance dogs can also open and close doors, turn lights on and off and hand objects to people.

"I think they're going to be good buds, and I hope I can be secure while he's gone," Haines said.

Haines' mother traveled often from Carroll County to the humane society in Reisterstown to visit the dogs. Haines went with her one day and took note of Nautica because she was "the friendliest." During her next visit, Haines saw Totis walking Nautica. Totis offered to work with Nautica in order to help Bryan.

"We're always happy when we place an animal in a home," said Frank Branchini, the humane society's executive director. "In this case, not only have we placed Nautica in a good home, but she is giving Bryan so much."

Bryan received a diagnosis of cerebral palsy when he was 6 months old. He has dealt with seizures most of his life.

"A good part of his life has been spent in emergency rooms and hospitals," Haines said.

The seizures forced Bryan to leave his public elementary school and attend Carroll Springs School for disabled children. He uses a wheelchair and can barely move or speak. Haines said Bryan is paralyzed on his left side.

At age 1, Nautica is unruly. As soon as she sees a visitor, the sleek black canine sprints down the wooden wheelchair ramp built onto the Haines' back porch. She jumps on the visitor, places her paws on his shoulders and tries to lick his face.

Despite her behavior, Totis said Nautica learns quickly, focuses easily and is determined to succeed.

Two years of assistance training usually costs about $14,000, but Totis said she is working with Nautica for free. However, Nautica will not be allowed to attend school with Bryan until the training is complete.

This is a relief for Haines because the cost of taking care of Bryan has been staggering. She had to quit her job with a real estate firm two years ago to stay home with him and had to rely on money from insurance and the state, child support from her former husband and church groups to help pay the bills.

Things seem to be looking up. In the past year, Bryan had two major surgeries, one on his hips and legs and one on his brain.

"He seems more alert after the surgery," Haines said. "He can participate in more activities."

Bryan transferred to Liberty High School in Eldersburg on Oct. 8. With the help of an aide and high-tech communication tools, he can participate in most school activities.

"Bryan is very intelligent, but physically he is trapped," Haines said. If she completes her training, Nautica will be Bryan's traveling companion. "If nothing else works, she'll be the best friend of Bryan forever," she said.

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