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Canine helper makes life better for area girl

December 15. 2013 11:58PM

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WYOMING —A local girl with Down syndrome has been given an assistance dog to help her with everyday life.

Jillian Sando’s mother, Bernice, said the condition has resulted in her 12-year-old daughter being behind physically and mentally. Jillian is also behind with her ability to speak.

“She also has arthritis, which kind of comes in with the physical aspect of things,” Sando said.

Jillian was paired up with a 2-year old Labrador/Golden Retriever mix named Gabriel.

Gabriel is not your average pooch. He was trained by Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) as a canine companions assistance dog, and understands more than 50 commands.

He can turn lights on or off, open and close doors and retrieve dropped objects. Sando said he can also sit, shake hands, lay down and follow other commands. The cost of training one dog exceeds $45,000.

“It’s amazing,” Sando said of the program. “I’m very happy that there are people out there that support such a program, because it really is a fantastic program for these children.”

Sando said the family saw a boy who had a canine assistant when Jillian was younger. They waited until she was 12 when they applied for a dog from CCI. CCI is a national, non-profit organization that provides assistance dogs for children and adults with disabilities.

Sando said the wait to receive a dog can be as long as two years.

In May, Jillian attended a two-week course with her mother and Gabriel at CCI’s Northeast Regional Center in Medford, N.Y. The course consisted of a series of lectures, exams, practice and public outings as families learn to work with the dogs.

Sando said the training was “tiring,” but liked that Jillian’s class consisted of six other children and their parents.

Gabriel is serving a larger purpose than just turning lights on or picking something up that Jillian may have dropped.

“Her dog, Gabe, is providing a tremendous social bridge with her family and her peers,” said John Bentzinger, spokesman for CCI.

Jillian and Gabriel have a great relationship so far. Sando said Gabriel gives her daughter a sense of confidence and makes her feel special when in they are in public. Though Jillian is social with her friends, Sando said her daughter tends to be shy and quiet. Now, Jillian has yet another buddy to spend her time with.

“A lot of times, she’s quiet and likes to watch movies, and the dog just sits with her,” Sando said. “We can all leave the room, and he’s still sitting by her.”

While he has become a member of the family, Sando said, Gabriel is treated a little differently as a working dog. He must remain quiet and unseen when in public. Sando said people are not supposed to approach him, but she lets children pet him.

CCI retains ownership of Gabriel, but Sando said the family can keep him as long as they’re following the rules of the program and taking care of him.

Gabriel must also undergo yearly re-certification tests at no cost to the family, and Sando also has to be re-certified as a facilitator.

Sando said that when the dog is no longer able to be used for service, the family will have the option to keep the dog as their own.

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