A rare form of muscular atrophy forces 10-year-old Shea Megale of Centreville, Va., to use a wheelchair. But her friends and passersby notice her for a different reason: her constant companion, a silky retriever mix named Mercer.
"I'm not known as the kid in a wheelchair," Shea says. "I'm known as the kid with the dog. That changes a lot for me."
Her disease has left her with limited arm strength and compromised motor skills. So three years ago, Shea's mother started looking for an assistance dog for her daughter.
Megan Megale, 44, says she learned about Canine Companions for Independence on the Internet and was attracted to the organization because it was the only one she could find that did not charge up to $25,000 for a dog.
CCI is one of dozens of organizations in the USA that train and place assistance dogs with the disabled.
Lisa Peterson of the American Kennel Club says dogs are well suited to assist people with disabilities, providing them with greater mobility and independence. "Dogs have an innate desire to please," Peterson says. "They want to help, and they are willing and able to follow specific instructions."
Founded in Santa Rosa, Calif., in 1975, CCI uses golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers or a mix of the two breeds from 119 specially selected breeder dogs.
Thanks to fundraising efforts and 875 volunteer puppy raisers, CCI provides its dogs free to carefully screened applicants. Candidates pay only a $100 registration fee to attend a two-week training session, during which they learn how to handle and work with the dogs. At the end of the program, candidates are matched with their companions in a special graduation ceremony. Graduation ceremonies take place four times a year in each of CCI's five regions.
On Saturday, the Northeast region held two graduation ceremonies in Melville, N.Y. In the first, volunteers turned their puppies in to CCI for advanced training; in the second, newly matched graduate teams were introduced.
Shea and Mercer graduated in May 2004. When Mercer's puppy raisers, Jim and Michelle Purton, arrived at the ceremony, they were excited to meet Shea. "These events are full of emotion," Michelle says. "It breaks your heart to let your dog go, but then you are so touched when you see the impact they can make on another person's life."
Today, the Purtons keep in touch with Shea and Mercer. "He was just waiting for Shea to come along," Michelle Purton says. "They are the perfect match."
There are 1,154 active CCI graduate teams in the USA, consisting of a dog and handler. Most CCI dogs assist people with various disabilities, working with people in wheelchairs and the hearing-impaired. Other CCI dogs work with rehabilitation professionals, helping to improve the physical or emotional health of their patients.
In addition to helping Shea with physical tasks, Mercer also offers companionship. "He makes her life better," Megan says. "This has absolutely changed her world."
She explains that when Mercer accompanies Shea to her doctor's appointments, he lowers her anxiety level considerably. "When she has to go to (Johns) Hopkins, he lifts the burden just by being with her."
Shea beams when she talks about Mercer. At the mall, he carries her purse and will put his paws on the counter to hand a clerk a credit card. During the school year, he rides the bus with Shea. When they go into their classroom, he lies down under Shea's desk.
"When I drop a pencil or something, I say, 'Get it.' And he retrieves it. If I need something, he's right there. And he knows it instinctively. He gets up and waits for the command."
In his first year at Shea's elementary school, Mercer became a fixture on campus, accompanying her to gym class and appearing in the school yearbook. In a page covered by dozens of headshots of the other fourth-graders, just next to a photo of Shea, a photo caption identifies "Mercer Megale."
Shea says she might like to move to Manhattan when she is older because it is an "accessible city" and relatively easy to navigate. She says she might want to become a dentist or a lawyer or have a military job.
But for now, Shea plans to enjoy the rest of her summer and enter the fifth grade in September with Mercer by her side.
"We're two peas in a pod," she says.
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