The relationship between a human and their service dog is an irreplaceable bond, forged with trust and free of judgment. It is a relationship as unique as the dogs who serve and the humans who love them. It is more unique, still, when it is the dog who has the disability.
Meet Pirelli, a young dog that is being trained to provide a very special service. Pirelli is part of Canine Assistants, a non-profit organization that trains service dogs and matches them with adults and children who would benefit from the dogs' company. Unlike most of the dogs in the program, Pirelli will probably never open doors, flip light switches or lead someone around a mall, but he will be delivering an important message: Disabled doesn't mean different. And Pirelli should know. He has been dealing with a disability all his life.
A disability becomes a strength
Pirelli was born to be a great dog. At Canine Assistants, dogs are bred into the program. Kent Brunner, the veterinarian at Canine Assistants, says is a nearly necessary part of their service.
"We have found that what we ask of those dogs is so difficult for the average dog, you really need a dog that’s temperamentally suited to do this," he says. "The day-to-day activity, for dogs who are not socialized as puppies, is very stressful. We just found that it was a little unfair to ask dogs who have been taken from elsewhere to undertake all of that."
Except, when Pirelli was born, he was missing part of his back left foot. Members of the foundation struggled with what to do about Pirelli's ailment. Amputation was an option, but instead they decided to see how strong the little pup could be. "In some ways it comes back to, above all, do no harm. Do the least aggressive thing," Kent says.
A little silicone bootie was designed for Pirelli's foot, and as time went by, he grew stronger, more acclimated to his unusual hardware. He also grew fast, as puppies tend to do, so the prosthetic had to be replaced. Most recently, with the aid of a sold-out Groupon, the foundation was able to raise enough money to recast Pirelli's leg yet another time, but he will probably need more refittings. After all, at only 8 months old, Pirelli is still a growing boy.
A different kind of service
Because of his prosthetic, Pirelli won't take on the normal tasks of a service dog, but Jennifer Arnold, the founder of Canine Assistants, says Pirelli belongs in the spotlight, anyway. Pirelli will visit schools as a spokesdog for those with disabilities, teaching children that what matters has nothing to do with a wheelchair, or a prosthesis, or a paw that never grew.
Though he is still young, Jennifer says Pirelli is a prime candidate for such a strong message. "We talk about how brilliant our dogs are and how they really don’t judge based on what your body can do, but what kind of person you are," she says of her organization's events. "Pirelli is just an exquisite example that life isn’t about how you get from place to place, or what you see or hear. It’s so much more than that. His spirit is unbelievable, he’s got that very special blessing. Imagine what he will be able to do for kids who wont be teased because he will teach kids the right way to think."
Personal service on a personal level
Pirelli's story hits very close to home for Jennifer. When she was 16, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She had to use a wheelchair for two years, and during that time, she feared she would never walk again. Through her father, she learned of an organization in California that was training service dogs. Jennifer was lucky. Eventually, she was able to walk on her own, but the idea of service dogs stuck in her mind. Together with her father, she started Canine Assistants in 1992. After 20 years of breeding, training and caring for service dogs, Jennifer says she can't underestimate the impact a dog can have on the life of someone with special needs.
"They are partners in the truest sense of the word," says Jennifer. "The dog is able to do so much physically that the person may not be able to do, and the person is able to provide a loving home and a human relationship. But the biggest things that dogs do for their people, they don't look at the container. To the dog, their person is perfect, the way they are. They just overlook disabilities, like it's nothing."
That's what Canine Assistants hopes Pirelli's work will stand for: A precious relationship, free of judgment, or prejudice, or hate. Humans can learn a lot from dogs in that way. It's a job little Pirelli was, quite literally, born to do.