Dog boosts confidence of student with cerebral palsy

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YPSILANTI, Mich. (AP) — Eastern Michigan University junior Courtney Bailey's life changed four months ago when she received her new assistance dog, Rolo.

Bailey sought out Canine Companions for Independence, a nonprofit national organization providing assistance dogs free of charge for people with disabilities, after getting encouragement from her former high school adviser.

The 20-year-old was born with cerebral palsy, a condition of irregular development to the brain during infancy or early childhood, affecting body movement or muscle coordination, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

She said she went through some minor struggles growing up, especially in school, though she said she did not let it affect her life. She gets around on an electric wheelchair which she said was one of the first things people noticed about her and would talk about.

"Before Rolo, I wasn't as open to do new things," Bailey told The Ann Arbor News ( ). "I had to ask people to pick things up for me and I couldn't do it by myself."

She said she would drop items such as a TV remote more than once and her mother or staff members overlooking would remind her by saying "you dropped it again."

When she considered getting an assistance dog, she had to send her family dog, Nicki, with her dad who is in Traverse City because she knew Nicki would have a difficult time with Rolo in the house.

It's been four months since she got Rolo and Bailey said her confidence levels have grown since their first day together. Rolo also became a conversation piece to her classmates where she would explain all of the things he is capable of doing for her.

"I have more confidence when I walk from place to place on campus because I have another entity by my side," Bailey said.

Her mother Dawn Bailey said before Rolo came into Courtney's life, she did not like walking around their neighborhood but is now more independent and responsible.

"Now she has to exercise her dog and she'll go out and take the dog, she's more outgoing, she feels more comfortable staying home alone," Dawn said.

Courtney Bailey said Rolo can pick up dropped items, help her take off her coat and socks, open and close doors and turn off the light switch. She said opening automatic doors was even difficult before because she is left-handed.

"The button is on the right side, I would have to go to the door, angle it (the chair), press it and then back out before it closed," she said.

CCI was founded in 1975 and is recognized worldwide for the excellence of its dogs and longevity of the partnerships it makes between dogs and clients, according to their website.

Development Associate Ashley Koehler said they interview applicants to determine the type of dog they need since they offer four types with different capabilities.

"The dogs are usually about two-years-old once we match them up and they can work for about eight to 10 years," Koehler said.

The types include: service dogs, facility dogs, skilled companions and hearing dogs.

— A service dog, which is what Courtney has, is used to assist adults with daily tasks such as picking up dropped items, opening doors or even pulling a manual wheelchair, according to their website. Courtney said they could even go as far as assisting with transactions at the store by transferring money or credit cards to the cashier.

— Facility dogs are intended to provide comfort and care to clients. They may be directed toward clients facing psychological tension. They are used in educational, healthcare and visitation settings to help engage students in activities, rehabilitation or to ease their nervousness.

— Skilled companions are similar to service dogs though can also work with children. They are under the guidance of a facilitator, which could be a parent, spouse or caregiver to care for the dog.

— Hearing dogs help alert clients to sounds by making physical contact with them such as nudging their leg or arm, according to their website. These dogs also respond to sounds such as doorbells, alarm clocks, someone calling a name.

Bailey's free assistance dog came with responsibilities to care for and train him. Each CCI dog goes through six to nine months of intensive training before they are paired with clients. They learn things such as basic obedience, how to work around a wheelchair in various environments and 40 different commands.

Bailey said "these dogs are the athletes of the dog world," and she must train Rolo every day. She has to ensure strong vocal communication with him and their mood between each other is understandable, as well as using positive reinforcement to help him learn.

"Having a service dog in college is harder than I expected because I got my work to do and he's got his training work to do," she said. "If Rolo doesn't do things I want right away I go 'come on you got it,' before I say the word 'no.' With him, we've got our own system and I can see what he's thinking."

Since she is in school during the week, she spends weekends training him by refreshing his basic commands such as "sit, down, shake, roll, tug" and plays fetch with him.

For emergencies only, Rolo can bark loudly on command as long as she slowly says "Rolo, speak."

"One of the instructors at Canine Companions said 'don't rely on him for something you can do,' " Bailey said.

However, a constant struggle she faces with Rolo is when people pet him without asking. She said it becomes problematic because he is a working dog and it causes her stress.

"Sometimes even now if I'm approached by a little kid, it's hard for me to have to say no," Bailey said. "Sometimes I just want to carry around a sign that says do not pet this dog."

Bailey is currently a full-time student taking 13 credits of courses at EMU. With her future social work degree, she hopes to work with veterans undergoing multiple trauma.

"Maybe work in a hospital to see veterans and meet with their families in social work settings, trying to put them in the right direction and make their own choices of their lives," she said.

She likes to spend a lot of her time being with and working with Rolo, reading and going to school.

"He's my wing-pup," Bailey said about Rolo. "In military lingo, your wingman is always right by you, he's always got your back and he's mine. He is wonderful. I will forever be indebted to them for giving me this gift."


Information from: The Ann Arbor News,

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