By Starrla Cray
DELANO, MN What has four legs, a furry black body, and the ability to bolster a third grade boy’s confidence?
His name is Eli, and he’s the new service dog that spends his days at Delano Elementary School.
“It’s fun, because you aren’t usually supposed to have a dog at school,” said the dog’s owner, Maxx Kirley.
Maxx was born with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a progressive genetic disorder characterized by muscle weakness that starts in the legs and pelvis, and later affects the entire body.
The condition makes it difficult for Maxx to play active games with other children, and in the past, he typically kept to himself at school.
“He was very quiet and shy before,” said Maxx’s third grade teacher, Leah Petersen.
However, in the few weeks that Eli has been around, the staff has noticed a dramatic change in Maxx.
“He’s becoming way more outgoing,” para-professional Colleen Dzurik said. “It’s been amazing a huge difference.”
“It’s helping him a lot,” Petersen added. “He’s more talkative, and when people ask him questions, he’s more apt to answer.”
Maxx and his parents, Terry and Jack, applied for a service dog in the summer of 2009, during a muscular dystrophy conference.
Canine Assistants, a national non-profit organization, told the Kirley family that there is a waiting list of about 1,200 people, and it could take five years to get a dog.
“Fortunately, Coborn’s came in and sponsored the dog,” Terry said during a donation ceremony last year.
Thanks to the special donation from Coborn’s in Delano and the Milkbone Brand, Maxx and his parents were able to receive Eli in January.
“We went to training camp in Milton, GA for two weeks,” Terry said. After the training was completed, Canine Assistants placed Eli and Maxx together.
Canine Assistants lets the dogs “choose” their owners, in order to ensure compatibility.
“They let all the dogs loose in the room, and Eli just honed in on Maxx,” Terry said. They both have dark, curly hair, and they seem to be a perfect match, she added.
In addition to helping at school, Eli has also improved Maxx’s home life.
“He’s just a lot more verbal,” Terry said. “He’ll tell me about his whole day. Before, I had to pry anything out of him.”
Terry attributes this change to Maxx’s sense of ownership, responsibility, and companionship.
“They sleep together and they play together,” Terry said. “They’re like best friends.”
A few weeks ago, Eli demonstrated his alertness in the classroom.
“The kindergarteners came in wearing masks for St. Patrick’s Day, and he started barking, because he thought they were going to hurt Maxx,” Petersen said.
For now, Eli’s primary purpose is companionship for Maxx. In the future, he will be trained to assist Maxx in getting around, opening doors, and other daily activities.
Having Eli in school with Maxx helps create a strong bond, which is critical for a service dog.
“If the dog is home all day, sometimes what happens is it’ll bond with mom instead,” Terry explained.
Terry said she is grateful for the way Delano Elementary School has handled Maxx’s service dog.
Before Eli arrived, students were informed about the duties and purpose of a service dog. They were taught that just as a person shouldn’t be interrupted in the middle of a task, a service dog shouldn’t be interrupted while it is working.
“Delano School District has been nothing but supportive,” Terry said.
Canine Assistants is a non-profit organization that trains and provides service dogs to enhance and improve the lives of children and adults who have physical disabilities, seizure conditions or other special needs, according to the company website.
Here are a few fun facts about the organization:
• About 75 to 100 dogs are placed each year.
• About 1,600 people are currently on the waiting list.
• The lifelong care of each service dog is well over $20,000, so Canine Assistants seeks sponsorships to cover the cost. Dogs are placed free of charge.
• The organization is run solely from private donations. It does not receive government funding.
• Canine Assistants was founded by Jennifer Arnold, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis as a teenager.