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Published: Sunday, 11/21/2004

Canine caregivers offer mobility for disabled children

Matthew Perretti, 7, of Monclova Township, offers a hug to his new assistance dog, Onyx during a graduation ceremony for six service dogs at Swanton High School. Matthew Perretti, 7, of Monclova Township, offers a hug to his new assistance dog, Onyx during a graduation ceremony for six service dogs at Swanton High School.

SWANTON - Matthew Perretti crouched next to Onyx and absent-mindedly stroked the black dog's back.

Sometimes he used gentle strokes, back and forth. Other times he brushed his fingers swiftly and stiffly through the fur. Onyx, a 22-month-old black Labrador, laid quietly, rarely budging from her spot.

Onyx, explained Chris Diefenthaler of Assistance Dogs of America, was doing exactly what she was trained to do.

The young lab was among six dogs participating in the organization's fall graduation yesterday in Swanton High School's auditorium. After several months of training, each dog was handed over to its new owner to help that person be more independent, more mobile, or, in the case of Onyx and Matthew, to be that person's new best friend.

"We wanted to help bring him out of himself," said Jill Perretti who's son Matthew, 7, has been diagnosed with Aspereger's syndrome, a high-functioning autism. "She's been trained to lay there while they brush her. That's soothing for both of them."

Assistance Dogs of America Inc., locates, trains, and places highly skilled service and therapy dogs with disabled adults and children to help them become more independent. The dogs are either donated or rescued from area shelters, Ms. Diefenthaler said.

The Swanton chapter of the organization trains about 34 dogs each year. About 20 of them graduate.

One of the proud graduates was Buddy, Onyx's brother and Mitchell Sneed's key to a more independent life. The 14-year-old Tipp City, Ohio, boy has spinal muscular atrophy, a genetic disease that leaves those affected with complete muscle weakness.

Mitchell needs help picking things up and getting things from the backpack he has strapped to his motorized wheelchair. And if he falls forward into a slump, he needs help straightening himself up.

That meant Mitchell always needs someone with him. Now, he has Buddy.

"My life, it'll probably be more active. I'll probably go out to more places," he said. "It's going to be a lot more fun, too."

There to watch Buddy take on his new role as a service dog were Geralyn Badenhop and her daughter Jenna, 13, who served as Buddy's foster family for the past 18 months. Armed with a camera and a bag full of Buddy's favorite treats, the mother and daughter from Hamler, Ohio, said goodbye to the dog with teary eyes and proud smiles.

"We loved being a part of the program, even in though in the end we knew we would have to give him up," Ms. Badenhop said.

Doug and Judy Holdridge of Perrysburg understood the bittersweet feelings of the assistance dog graduation. They watched as Shiloh grew up, tearing through their house, ripping up stuffed animals. Yesterday, the 2-year-old black lab lay obediently next to Lori Pompili's wheelchair, ready to pick up dropped objects, open doors, or call 911 if necessary.

Shiloh's new life was especially rewarding for James and Maggie O'Quinn, of Wooster, Ohio, who donated her as a puppy.

The lab breeders said that they began working with the agency because they worried that they might not sell the dozen puppies from their first litter. They continue to work with the group because of smiles like the one on Ms. Pompili's face.

"These dogs, they are adding to the lives of others," Mr. O'Quinn said. "You go to see the end product and it really makes it all worth it."

Contact Erica Blake at: eblake@theblade.com or 419-724-6076.

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