Golden Rover: bringing balance to his partner’s life

Danielle & Rover at Mystic Education Center 1-28-10. Photo by Tim Cook/The Day

East Coast Assistance Dogs is a fabulous group that breeds and trains Assistance Dogs for clients with a wide variety of disabilities and needs. They are one of the many fine groups that are making a difference. And, they recently produced a Golden happy ending for the Ciccotti family, providing them with a Golden Retriever Service Dog named Rover.

Danielle Ciccotti needed someone she could lean on. For years, she walked the halls of her elementary and middle school in Preston, Conn., leaning on Walker, a homeless dog trained as a service dog.

Then Walker grew old and died. Danielle, 15, went from walking alongside her classmates to sitting in a scooter, feeling isolated and grief-stricken.

Danielle has ataxia, a neurological disorder that affects fine and gross motor skills. She can walk short distances, but otherwise needs help. Her speech is sometimes hard to understand.

The human-canine bond is a strong one, and that much more special in a service dog partnership. These dogs are not pets, never straying far from their partner’s side. So, dealing with the reality of loss and death is much more stressful in this type of relationship. Adding in the increased stress inherent to managing a disabling condition and handling the tribulations of adolescence, and you can well imagine how hard life has been for Danielle.

Danielle & Walker

When Walker died in August at age 12, Danielle was devastated. The family had been searching for a year for another dog so that when the time came they were prepared. That moment came in November when Danielle and Stephani went to a special school in New York to meet Rover, a dog the family purchased through the East Coast Assistance Dogs association.

Danielle wasn’t sure she was ready. The two-week boot camp Danielle went through with disabled war veterans and their service dogs was intense. One night, while working in the training room, Rover barked at Danielle. She was frustrated, he was frustrated, and the two were at a stalemate, her mother said. Danielle began to cry.

That’s when a veteran named Ace came into the room, Danielle said. She said he understood her frustration and was trying to talk to her when Rover swiftly got between them. The dog started to force Ace to back away from Danielle.

“Rover thought he had hurt me. He thought I was crying because of Ace,” she said recently, smiling at the memory.

That was the turning point for Danielle and Rover. Last week, the pair worked well together. They practiced commands, such as turning on and off lights, with some success. There are skills they still need to work on; and while she may not recall them, Danielle had similar frustrating moments with Walker.

At one point she told her parents that Walker made her life “horrible.” Last week, as she sat in the lobby of the Mystic Education Center’s pool with Rover sleeping at her feet, Walker’s ashes were kept lovingly in a platinum bone pendent hanging from a silver chain around her neck.

Danielle said there is a spiritual connection between the two dogs. Walker entered her life on April 13, 2001; Rover was born on April 13, 2007. “It is a sign,” she said, smiling as she massaged Rover’s soft nose that was resting on her legs.

I would tend to agree with Danielle.

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