By Susan Dibble
Fourteen-year-old Patrick Maresh leans over to let Mary Lou plant a wet kiss on his face. Once she is confident he is safe, she lies quietly at his feet.
Patrick and the 2-year-old Labrador/golden retriever mix have been constant companions since he received her as a canine assistant in July.
"We take her everywhere," says Jan Maresh, Patrick's mother. "(But) that's the only person she kisses."
Maresh said Mary Lou has made a huge difference for her multi-needs son, who is nonverbal, has sensory issues and low muscle tone.
The dog accompanies him to his special needs classroom at Herrick Middle School in Downers Grove, where she lies by him as he works and walks with him as he passes through the halls. Before Mary Lou's arrival, Patrick was so afraid of being bumped into and knocked over, he would flatten himself against the lockers and not move, his mother said.
"It's different," she said. "It's a total blessing."
Patrick, who has two older sisters, now goes with his family to high school sporting events and to cheerleading competitions. Before, he wouldn't enter the gym because of the sensory overload, Maresh said.
"He's able to tolerate a lot more," she said. "Now he walks right. She's at his side. We sit in the bleachers with everybody else."
Maresh can't explain it, but Mary Lou makes Patrick calmer. He no longer stands up in the middle of a church service, hands his mother his coat and announces "All done" in his not-easily-understood voice.
"He'll pet her. He'll interact with her. Then he can focus back on wherever we are," she said.
This bond between boy and dog has been a long time coming. Maresh said she became aware of Patrick's love of dogs after he enrolled in Southeast Special Parks and Recreation's Rainbow Therapy Dogs program. The kids had the opportunity to pet, groom and play games with dogs for an hour at a time. Patrick couldn't get enough.
Program facilitator Robin Mazzuca told Maresh she believed Patrick would benefit from having a dog of his own and gave her information about Canine Assistants, a Georgia-based organization that has provided service dogs to children and adults with disabilities since 1991. The organization was featured in a PBS special, "Through a Dog's Eyes," based on a book by the same name written by founder Jennifer Wheeler, who herself has multiple sclerosis.
After filling out a questionnaire, writing essays, gathering letters of recommendation and producing a DVD of Patrick's developmental history, the Maresh family submitted an application in 2006. Eight days later, they were notified Patrick was on the list to become a recipient.
The wait was four years. Meanwhile, they answered in-depth questions about Patrick's physical abilities, anger management and reaction to crises. In 2009, Canine Assistants notified the Westmont family that Ultra Foods in Downers Grove and Milk Bone would serve as sponsors to cover the cost of providing a service dog for Patrick.
More paperwork followed. Patrick's doctor, occupational therapist, teacher, a caregiver and family member filled out personality profiles of him so he could be better matched with a dog. As required by Canine Assistants, Maresh found a local veterinarian to care for the dog.
The family, who had never had a dog as a pet, prepared themselves to welcome a canine house companion by inviting vacationing friends and acquaintances to leave their dogs with them.
"We got to enjoy all different dogs," Maresh said.
Finally, in July 2010, Maresh, her husband and Patrick headed for the two-week training camp in Georgia where Patrick would meet his canine companion. During the first two days, recipients are introduced to dogs that trainers have selected as possible matches based on the profiles they received.
"The dogs really pick the recipients," Maresh said. "The dogs can sense by your energy what your need is."
The dogs typically make their selection by putting their paws on a recipient's lap and seemingly looking into their eyes, she said.
"It took Patrick five dogs," Maresh said. "They just keep going until they find the right match."
Once the selection is made, recipients work with the dogs and their trainers in the afternoons while attending lectures on dog management in the mornings. By the second week, they are going on public outings with the dogs.
The dogs' new guardians are required to take a final written exam before they graduate. Maresh and her husband became certified dog handlers.
"They (Canine Assistants) take it very seriously. These dogs are a huge investment on their part," Maresh said.
Lifetime cost for each dog is about $25,000, Maresh said. Thanks to businesses sponsorships, Canine Assistants is able to place the dogs for free, fly families to Georgia, put them up in a hotel and provide them with meals at no charge.
Maresh said recipients enter a contract with the organization spelling out their responsibilities.
For instance, recipients must weigh the dogs four times a year and submit the information to Canine Assistants. If they allow the dogs to become obese and fail to take action to solve the problem, the organization reserves the right to take the dogs back.
Families also receive an 800 number to contact the organization with follow-up questions and concerns.
"Technically, this dog is on permanent loan," Maresh said. "It's a full commitment and it's not something to take lightly. It's almost like adopting a child."
Confident, protective and social, Mary Lou was a good match for Patrick, but being with just one family was an adjustment for her, Maresh said. Mary Lou, named after gymnast Mary Lou Retton, had grown up on a farm with other dogs and met a variety of people on the home visits that were part of her training.
"When she first started going to school, it was almost as though she felt she needed to take care of everyone," Maresh said.
But Mary Lou now knows that Patrick is her special charge. Other kids are allowed to pet her, but not while she is working.
"Our rule across the board is if we are moving, we don't let anyone touch her because that is when we really need her to focus to keep him safe," Maresh said.
Ben Benjamin, who has had Patrick in his multi-needs classroom for three years, said he initially was skeptical about having a dog in school, but has been pleasantly surprised.
"The other students have really embraced her. She's one of our class now," he said.
Mary Lou has made the eighth-grader more confident, Benjamin said.
"He can navigate his way through the school better with her. He seems more sure of himself," he said.
Coleen Olson, Patrick's classroom aide, said she is pleased to see the affection between Patrick and his dog. Mary Lou has brought Patrick positive attention, she said.
"He walks the dog and people say hello to him," she said. "It's like his parade."
Maresh said Patrick enjoys the attention. Although Patrick always has been sociable and outgoing, sometimes people would avert their eyes and not reciprocate, she said.
"It's almost like she brought people to him," she said. "If you have a dog, everybody says hello. It's just amazing."
Kathy Serikaku, Patrick's occupational therapist at Adventist Paulson Pediatric Rehabilitation Center in Hinsdale, said she has incorporated Mary Lou into Patrick's therapy goals. He works on putting on her leash, managing the dog while other people are around, handing her a treat and giving the dog commands using a communication device he wears around his waist.
"I think he's happier that he has the dog with him as a best buddy," she said.
Maresh said Mary Lou will remain Patrick's canine assistant during her working life of nine to 10 years. When a dog ages, a recipient has the option of applying for another service dog and keeping the older dog as a pet, she said.
"I can't say enough about the people at Canine Assistants. They were just wonderful," she said.
For information on Canine Assistants, visit its website at canineassistants.org.