Ten-year old Rachel Bryant is a fourth grader at Riverside School. About 18 months ago, Rachel, who has Down Syndrome, showed signs of developmental leaps, all good, but at the same time, she began to be afraid of the dark. This was new for the youngster who’d been sleeping through the night since she was an infant. Her parents were “blindsided.”
Originally from Boston, Rachel’s mother Ginny Bryant is a lawyer with expertise in estate planning. Her father, Stephen Bryant, is an international business executive in the bio-tech industry, who hails from Lowestoft in East Anglia. The couple met shortly after Stephen moved into Ginny’s Boston neighborhood. Engaged within 11 weeks, they married and settled in Princeton in 2001.
With lots of relatives in England, the couple looks forward to an annual summer trip there. When Rachel was young enough to use a stroller, negotiating Heathrow’s busy terminal wasn’t a problem but as she grew the couple began to worry about traveling with their active and fast moving daughter — they’ve had three Amber alerts in the past.
“We worried about how to keep her safe,” said Ginny. “We looked into GPS tracking devices and Rachel worked with a behavior therapist but it was still a concern and then one day a friend said ‘Have you thought of getting a dog?’ We aren’t dog people, but my friend forwarded an article about one family’s success with a service dog for their 12-year-old daughter with cerebral palsy. When I read that this child who had never slept through the night until she received her service dog, that was it. I said sign me up and it has been amazing.”
Although the Bryants had been prompted to seek out the help of a service dog because of their daughter’s “elopement” behavior (the term used for those who wander or run off) it was the added benefit of helping their daughter sleep through the night that clinched it. The Bryants contacted Canine Companions for Independence, a national non-profit organization that provides assistance dogs to children and adults with disabilities.
But in order to qualify, the Bryants had to go through some intensive team training, a two-week residential course during which students are paired and allowed to bond with a fully trained, working assistance dog. Since Rachel is so young, the entire family went through the training process at Canine Companion’s Northeast Regional Center in Medford, New York. One of five such centers nationwide, it serves a 13-state area from Maine to Virginia.
“For the first week we worked with several different dogs, then on the Friday night we had a doggie sleepover,” said Ginny. Rachel had been matched with a two-year-old Labrador/Golden Retriever mix. “On the first night, Rachel read the dog a bedtime story and wanted her to sleep on her bed, but at the foot of the bed.”
Meanwhile Ginny remained concerned that Rachel would wake in the night. She needn’t have worried. Rachel slept right through. During the second night, Ginny found that her daughter had scooted down the bed to be with Puddles, as she now called “her” dog.
Rachel herself changed her dog’s name from ‘Pebbles’ to ‘Puddles.’ “It was so cute,” recalled Ginny. “We thought at first she was saying ‘Petals’ but then Rachel, who has known sign language since she was a baby, signed “No, ‘Puddles’ like the rain.”
Training culminated in a very emotional graduation ceremony; a diploma was received and their dog’s leash was ceremoniously handed over. Puddles came home with the family to Princeton on August 16, shortly before the start of the school year in September.
As the couple discovered, Princeton Public Schools had no written policy governing the use of service dogs in the district’s schools. The Bryants have been working with the school district to put one in place and it is expected to be presented at an upcoming board of education meeting.
Until Rachel and Puddles, the district had not encountered a student with a service dog. Board members are working to clarify district policy regarding service dogs. Dogs are not currently allowed on school property without permission.
As a dog with a serious job to do, however, Puddles was treated as something of a celebrity when the family flew to London on Christmas Eve. The pilot came out to welcome Rachel and Puddles and after the journey Rachel and Puddles walked together through the busy Heathrow terminal.
According to Ginny, Puddles helps her daughter in numerous ways such as facilitating transitions between activities and helping her learn responsibility. As soon as Rachel comes home from school, it’s her job to brush, feed, and provide water for Puddles.
True to her calling, Puddles loves to work. She can not only pee and bark on demand, she can turn light switches on and off, open and close doors and retrieve dropped objects. She is trained to respond to over 50 commands. But for Rachel, her canine companion’s most important feature is warm and snuggly companionship. Rachel and Puddles are inseparable.
And as for the Bryants not being dog people? That has definitely changed. “Puddles is a very special dog and we hope to have many wonderful years with her,” said Ginny, who has recently acquired a supply of lint rollers for removing dog hair from her mostly black professional wardrobe.
Established in 1975, Canine Companions is the largest non-profit provider of trained assistance dogs with five regional training centers across the country. It’s recognized not only for the excellence of its dogs but for the quality and longevity of the matches it makes between dogs and people.
Dogs are provided at no cost to the recipient. The organization’s donors support the more than $45,000 costs of raising and training each dog, which is owned by Canine Companions and must undergo yearly re-certification tests.
The dogs — Labrador and Golden Retrievers and crosses of the two — are bred at the non-profit organization’s headquarters in Santa Rosa, California. “These dogs make such great service animals because of their intelligence, their strength, and their devotion,” said Debra Dougherty, executive director of Canine Companions Northeast Region.
Training standards are so high that only about four out of ten dogs graduate. “Those are the cream of the crop, and they make a tremendous difference in the life of individuals who really need them,” said Ms. Dougherty. “Right now there’s about a year-and-a-half wait to be invited to team training.”
The dogs are raised by volunteers until they they are about a year-and-a-half-old when they begin advanced training. Canine Companions has several types of service dog placements, including hospitals and rehabilitation centers. Several have been placed in the criminal justice system, giving comfort to children who are victims of sexual abuse and other violent crimes and the non-profit organization’s Wounded Veterans Initiative places dogs with disabled veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. One is with a young Marine who became a quadruple amputee after stepping on an IED outside Fallujah.
For more information, call (800) 572-BARK, or visit: cci.org.