Midwest Assistance Dogs

By+Kelli Stopczynski

BEST FRIENDS FOREVER

In a recent student council election, Jacque Raab was the only Southern Dearborn Middle School sixth grader with a running mate. Her campaign signs encouraged classmates to “Vote For Jacque And Parker”—a stumping move an outsider might find odd, but one her classmates embraced. She and Parker won.

“I wish I could put it into words. He has changed her life so dramatically and our lives in turn,” gushed Jacque’s mom, Karla Raab. “She was the child who didn’t speak or make eye contact before this. She never would have considered trying for student council before Parker.”

A 4-year-old, 100 pound Yellow Laborador Retriever, Parker is what Jacque describes as her “BFF” (Best Friend Forever). 

“He really helps me out and he always gives me comforting thoughts. When the pressure’s on me, I hug Parker and I feel much better because he’s like a big teddy bear,” Jacque said.

He’s also her lifeline. 

Jacque was born a normal, healthy child but began showing signs of what appeared to be a hearing loss in the second grade. After lots of testing, she was diagnosed with epilepsy then further diagnosed with a rare form of the seizure-causing Landau Kleffner disorder. 

As seizures occurred more frequently, Jacque took medications and saw therapists. She also began losing weight and her self confidence. The family considered surgery and special diets, but knew those could cause terrible side effects.

“Sometimes she would just stare off into the distance and nobody realized she was having a seizure,” Karla explained. “She’d miss a couple beats and be back.”

Nighttime has always been the scariest. That’s when the 12-year-old experiences the most severe epileptic seizures. One night several years ago, Jacque’s parents found her standing on top of a mirrored dresser. Fearing their daughter would hurt herself or worse, they moved her into their bed where, each night for two years, she slept.

In time, the family learned about seizure alert dogs—canines specially trained to bark, nudge or signal when their human companion is about to have a seizure. But most assistance dog agencies don’t allow young kids to apply. That’s when Karla found Midwest Assistance Dogs in South Bend. Jacque applied when she was 8, but coming up with the $6,000 to pay for a dog to be trained and several thousand more to fence in her family’s large back yard seemed impossible.

“Every night my daughter wished upon a star that she would have a service dog and I never thought that wish would come true,” recounted an emotional Karla.

But it did. A local high school student who knew the family organized a benefit carnival for the Raabs and through support of their small Southern Indiana community raised $18,000. Jacque could finally get the assistance dog she so desperately wanted.


THE DOG NOBODY ELSE WANTED

The way dogs from the Midwest Assistance Dogs program are placed with families like the Raabs could be considered fate, if you believe in it. At one time, Parker was a pet nobody wanted. His previous owners turned him over to a local animal shelter because they either weren’t ready for such a huge responsibility, couldn’t train him or simply couldn’t afford to feed him.

When Jacque’s application came through to the not-for-profit organization, Parker was still sitting in the shelter, waiting to be adopted. But lucky for him (and Jacque), a trainer from Midwest Assistance Dogs found Parker and chose him for a little girl in Southern Indiana.

Shelter dogs like Parker are chosen for their alertness, intelligence, temperament, adaptability and willingness to please. Before training began, Parker was examined by a veterinarian and given all of his vaccinations. Midwest Assistance Dogs also makes sure all assistance canines are spayed or neutered.

From there, Parker went home with his trainer (an independent contractor with the organization) and received basic obedience and socialization training. In addition, he received the Seizure Alert
training necessary to help Jacque.

Each year, Midwest Assistance Dogs trains about 8 service dogs for applicants needing mobility assistance, seizure alert assistance, hearing assistance, therapy, emotional support and companionship in the Midwest and beyond.

“It’s a need that is growing rapidly—not so much because of an increase in the number of people with disabilities, but because of a growing recognition of how an appropriately trained dog can help people,” explained Midwest Assistance Dogs Executive Director Mark Halasz.

Still, educating the public in Northern Indiana and Southwest Michigan about Midwest Assistance Dogs is difficult.

“We’ve been doing this for 23 years. We’ve done—and I’m not exaggerating—tens of dozens of demonstrations for people and groups, but when we’re out in public doing those demonstrations people always say ‘I didn’t know there was anything like that in this area,’” Halasz said.

Despite the constant struggle to let the community know about the organization, individuals and families who need assistance dogs (like the Raabs) are finding it and reaping the benefits.


MEANT TO BE


In December 2008, Jacque and Parker met for the first time.

“That first day, when he went back to the hotel room with us he flipped upside down on his back and she rubbed his belly. He slept with her the whole first night—he did not get out of the bed and wander to me or my husband or our other children. It was a meant-to-be thing,” said Karla.

One of the biggest challenges with seizure alert dogs is there’s
no guarantee they’ll bond with their human partner, sense a seizure and give the proper alert. The Raabs knew that from the beginning but were willing to “take a leap of faith.”  When Parker alerted the family for the first time, Karla cried.

They’ve been inseparable ever since. They attend classes together, play outside together and sleep in the same bed (Karla says Parker is up most of the night “like a worried mother,” watching over Jacque and alerting her family when she has seizures). 

Karla remembers a specific time when she was rushing her daughter, trying to get out the door to an event. Jacque sat down on the couch and Parker laid his body across hers, so she couldn’t get up. When Karla asked her daughter how she was feeling, Jacque said she was hot, sweaty and dizzy—all symptoms of an impending seizure.

“If it wasn’t for him, those would be moments when she would have seizures at a very terrible place. But he interrupts the process, stops us and makes her sit down. It just works,” Karla explained.

Jacque agrees. She’s gained back all the weight she lost before Parker came into her life. She also has a renewed sense of confidence.

“I don’t think a million sessions in therapy could have done what he’s done for her,” said Karla. “It’s kind of philosophical. This animal is helping my daughter and she’s helping him. In life, you hope everything comes back around and I see it happening right in front of me.”


HOW YOU CAN HELP
As a not-for-profit organization, Midwest Assistance Dogs Inc. depends upon the generosity of others for its continued existence. You can show your support for Midwest Assistance Dogs by contributing to the general fund, scholarship fund or by contributing to the fund raising efforts of an individual applicant. For more information visit: www.midwestassistancedogs.org or call 574.272.7677



ANOTHER SUCCESS STORY

Midwest Assistance Dogs is also helping human partners and their families in our area. David Cooper of Nappanee, IN received his Seizure Alert dog, Patti, six years ago. The Lab-Terrier mix can alert up to two hours before David has an epileptic seizure.

“We knew he was growing up and we wanted him to be as independent as he could be,” explained David’s mother, Kristi Komon. “Meds don’t work, he’s on a special diet now and nothing else was working. So we knew we needed another alternative.”

David, 21, and Patti go everywhere together—including Disney Land, Busch Gardens, an imitation coal mine at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago and weekly Karate class.

The family recently brought home a 15 week old puppy who has similar reactions to Patti when David is about to have a seizure.

“If people would realize how smart animals are and just listen to them I think this world would be a much better place,” Komon said.
 










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