Canine Companion Brings Independence

For 10-year-old Lizzy, everyday activities most people take for granted are difficult, if not impossible.

Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., resident Lizzy Hilgeman suffers from cerebral palsy.

Lizzy’s dad, Chris, wondered whether an assistance dog would help his daughter. So he checked out an event hosted by Canine Companions for Independence, a nonprofit organization that trains and places assistance dogs, featuring quadriplegic artist and CCI graduate Tommy Hollenstein.

“People were coming up to the other kids and talking to them and asking them, ‘Can I pet your dog?’” Chris says. “They really wanted to meet the dog and meet the individual, but no one came up and talked to us. We didn’t have a dog.”

The event was eye-opening. Chris had heard that assistance dogs were valued as social icebreakers, but now the concept really hit home. “Lizzy’s non-verbal but she needs that interaction,” Chris says. “She can’t go on with life not interacting!”

Chris applied for an assistance dog for Lizzy, and they were matched with Fay, a yellow Labrador Retriever-Golden Retriever mix. Lizzy, Chris and Fay received training during an intensive two-week course at CCI’s Southwest Regional Center in Oceanside, Calif.  
“Initially, Lizzy wasn’t sure about the sensory experience,” Chris says. “But as the days went on, she really took to the dog. She began reaching down to pet Fay, enjoying Fay being there and listening for the sound of the tags on her collar.”

The relationship progressed from there. Now Lizzy loves getting kisses from Fay, who has been incorporated into Lizzy’s physical therapy at home. Best of all, Chris says, is people approach Lizzy in public more often when Fay is by her side, giving Lizzy more opportunities to interact with others.

“It’s very rewarding to see people stop and say hello to her and Fay then walk away smiling,” Chris says. “Given her obvious challenges, people may be too intimidated to talk to her and often end up feeling sorry for her. That’s not the impact I want my daughter to have on others!”

Even at home Lizzy’s younger brother Trevor, who has difficulty socializing with other children due to autism, has developed a stronger interest toward her when Fay is around and has begun to play and interact with Lizzy much more than he used to.

“It really moved me the day Lizzy and Fay were playing together on the floor and, for the first time, Trevor took the initiative and laid down next to his sister so he could join in on the fun,” Chris says. “Fay has helped strengthen the bond between brother and sister that I had previously found difficult to do.”

Faye and the training, along with ongoing support to Lizzy and Chris, were provided free of charge by CCI.

“It isn’t often in Lizzy’s life that we get opportunities that are unique,” Chris explains. “This is a unique opportunity that is such a wonderful thing for Lizzy.”

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