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Published: Monday, 8/24/2009

Wood County girl prepares pooch to assist injured athlete

BY JANET ROMAKER
BLADE STAFF WRITER

She opened her home and her heart to a tumble bumble puppy, knowing, just knowing this day would come.

After two years of constant care - she fed him, she played with him, she walked him, she brushed his coat - Mary Claire Miller has said good-bye to her furry friend and loyal companion.

A summer graduate of the class of 2009, Magnum has moved on. To Indiana. Where the 83-pound black Labrador has a new job and a new life.

Mary Claire, a 14-year-old Notre Dame Academy freshman, misses Magnum with an ache that won't soon go away.

But her spirit soars when she thinks about what she has done, and what Magnum can do, for a perfect stranger.

His name is Matt Wesley, and as Mary Claire's mother, Ruth Miller, puts it, there couldn't be a more deserving young man, there couldn't be a better match for Magnum.

It was Oct. 2, 2007. Football practice was well under way. Matt, then a senior linebacker and defensive back at a high school in St. John, Ind., was making a tackle.

In a life-changing second, he bruised his spinal cord.

After five months in a hospital and a rehab center, Matt returned home. He has limited motion in his arms and legs, but there's much he can do.

He sends text messages. He regularly updates his Facebook status, using his voice-activated computer. He's getting ready to start prelaw classes at a satellite campus of Purdue University.

Mr. Wesley can't do some things, such as open doors or lean over and pick up a dropped pen or pencil. Magnum, however, is trained to do all that and more.

In a cafe at the Toledo Zoo on a recent afternoon, it only takes a pickle and french fry on the floor to show off Magnum's skills as a trained service dog.

Magnum sniffs and looks up hungrily. "Leave it," Mr. Wesley says. Brown eyes beg for permission to gobble the dill spear and salty piece of potato. "Leave it," Mr. Wesley repeats.

Magnum's metronome of a tail picks up pace, thwacking "please, please," against the cafe's counter. "Leave it," comes the command again, and Magnum obeys.

"He's very well-trained," Mr. Wesley said as the dog looks at, but doesn't touch, the tempting food spilled by some other customer. "Sometimes Magnum needs to get into his own rhythm, and then he's perfect and he's ready to do what you ask."

On this day of training exercises, Magnum is asked to patiently wait in line with cranky kids and stroller-pushing parents at the zoo.

On command, the dog presses buttons to open doors and later practices walking backward alongside Mr. Wesley.

Well-trained indeed.

Following the two years of foster care provided by Mary Claire in her family's home in the Wood County community of Tontogany, Magnum received intensive instruction for three months at the training facility operated by Assistance Dogs of America Inc. near Swanton. Then, based on Magnum's skills and Mr. Wesley's needs, the agency partnered the pair in July, and in recent days there has been additional training.

The partnership was celebrated last week during the nonprofit agency's summer graduation for Magnum and several other service or therapy dogs that have been matched with clients.

Four of the graduates were fostered by prison inmates in Toledo; others were fostered by volunteers such as Mary Claire, who said her mother, a Sunshine Foundation board member, brought the idea home to her about providing foster care for a service dog. A client at Sunshine Inc. of Northwest Ohio has an assistance dog, the teen said.

Mary Claire and Mr. Wesley and their families were among those attending the graduation at Parkway Place in Maumee last week.

Sprawled on the floor, just before walking up the aisle with Mary Claire, Magnum crossed his front legs, all prim and properlike.

Mr. Wesley figures such a move is "kind of prissy" for a big dog named Magnum. But the compassion and kindness in his voice clearly say that prissy or not, he thinks Magnum is one fine dog.

In a green pouch, Mr. Wesley keeps a handy supply of treats to reward his four-pawed pal. A squirt of liver paste is a favorite.

A bright blue vest, lettered with "working service dog," explains to passers-by why Magnum can go to college, board an airplane, or explore the zoo.

Mr. Wesley and his dog will ride a bus to campus, and recently in Toledo they learned the do's and don'ts of getting on and off a bus.

The 20-year-old is particularly pleased to have a dog as his new best friend. "He's my first dog and my first service dog," Mr. Wesley said with a flash of a smile, a smile that rarely leaves his face.

It's a smile that Magnum someday will seek out rather than a piece of food as praise for a job well done. But for now, Magnum could wear a sign: "Will work for food."

Mary Claire said Magnum isn't a fussy eater. "For Magnum, if it's food, then it's good," she said as Mr. Wesley nods in agreement, the dog sticking close by his side. When Magnum locks eyes with Matt, the bond is there. Tight. And heart tugging.

What this is, said Deb Wagner, who was teamed with a service dog in 2007, is the "beginning of a long, fruitful relationship between a dog and its handler." Miss Wagner, a 43-year-old Fort Wayne resident who has cerebral palsy, takes vacation time to volunteer with final training sessions for dogs and new clients at the Assistance Dogs of America's facility where her dog, Scarlet, was trained.

At Miss Wagner's home, Scarlet, who knows 60 commands, helps with the laundry; the dog takes clothes from the drier, puts them in a basket, then pulls the basket with a rope.

Scarlet, with a command of "up," pays cashiers by taking a change purse in her teeth and releasing it on the command of "thank you."

Service dogs, Miss Wagner said, "are great confidence builders for people with disabilities. The dogs empower people to try new things and explore new opportunities."

She and Scarlet are a team, as they demonstrated during the training session at the Toledo Zoo.

"She's my right hand. She's my left leg. I would give up anything I have before I would give up Scarlet. She's my everything."

Miss Wagner bubbles with the news of a recent change in Indiana state law, a change directly related to her and her dog. Miss Wagner had been forced to work at home because her employer refused to allow Scarlet to accompany her to the office, but with the change in the law, effective July 1, she and Scarlet are both welcome at the job site.

The law was changed with advocacy work done by Gary Johnson, formerly of West Toledo, who lives near Miss Wagner in the Fort Wayne area. Mr. Johnson, who is teamed with a service dog, is an Assistance Dogs of America board member, said Jan Brown, the agency's executive director.

Assistance Dogs of America has about 50 names on a waiting list for service or therapy dogs, said Dawn Hammer, client services coordinator.

Mr. Wesley, who likes to attend sporting events and spend time outside, was on the waiting list for more than a year.

The day before his July 14 birthday, the call came. "They had a match for me. They would only say he was a male black Lab, and then they said we could meet."

His first reaction when he saw Magnum was, "Oh, my gosh."

Mr. Wesley was instantly drawn to the dog. "He's pretty much perfect."

Mary Claire, of course, already knew that.

And she knows that this match - this man and this dog she raised - is pretty much perfect too.

Contact Janet Romaker at:

jromaker@theblade.com or

419-724-6006.



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