Service dog provides crucial companionship

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Alex Mertens and Kasper the service dog
BRAGG CREEK - Alex Mertens gently tells Kasper, a purebred yellow Labrador, to come visit and the dog rests his chin on her lap.

“Visit” may be a simple word, but not for the two-year-old service dog and certainly not for Alex, 13, a quadriplegic also coping with epilepsy and cerebral palsy.
It’s the command word that signals the working dog should be up for a new task, says mom Carol Mertens.
“When she says visit, he puts his head right in her lap,” explains the mom of triplets, one of whom is Alex.
“That gets him going, knowing it’s OK for him to drop things on her lap.”
Alex needs Kasper’s assistance to open doors, pull her wheelchair for short distances, push elevator buttons, retrieve objects and bark to family if she needs more help.
With Kasper around, Alex has a new buddy to push the handicap-access door openers, turn off light switches, remove sweaters or socks and turn her over in bed at night.
In ordinary parlance, the word “visit” may also mean a temporary encounter, but Kasper isn’t just visiting Alex.
The graduate of the non-profit Dogs with Wings Assistance Dog Society is expected to be with the girl for the rest of his working life.
Michael Mertens, who takes comfort his daughter now has a new companion, estimates the pooch will be with Alex for at least 10 years.
“I absolutely love that dog. It is such a nice, well-behaved dog,” says the dad as he watches his three girls play with the pooch.
“I’m so impressed by the training they had done. It fits so perfectly to the family.”
Michael says he’s so thrilled his daughter has a companion to develop and grow with her.
“It just gives her a lot of independence and gives her a lot of confidence, especially if she’s alone,” he said.
Kasper, who was introduced to the family July 29, has already greatly changed the girl’s quality of life.
Michael says due to his daughter’s condition, Alex uses all sorts of “surrogate forms of companionship,” such as a TV left on while the girl works on something.
With Kasper being around, that won’t be necessary, says the dad, who accepts Alex is going to need care 24-7.
“You sort of have to go with the flow in this kind of situation,” he says.
“But I feel a lot better going with the flow with Kasper in the picture, in that there’s somebody else to help her.”
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Sam and Katie are Alex’s adoring triplet sisters.
The day their mom announced Kasper would finally become part of the Mertens’ household, they jumped with joy.
Sam says they were all surprised.
“Mom got off the phone and said ‘Guess what? I have the greatest news in the world.’
“Alex was screaming. Finally she’s getting her dog!
“We were all so excited and thinking what we’re going to do the first day we get him.”
Alex chimes in, confirming how excited she was: “I started screaming.
“I had a dream of doing a dance with him and I did it,” says Alex, who attends a ballet school for special-needs kids.
With the help of her sisters, who train at a Calgary dance studio, Alex choreographed a routine with Kasper, which she presented in a gala with Dogs with Wings.
Katie says what interested her at first was how the dog was going to react to their 17-year-old cat, Calvin, who during filming of a video interview caught everyone’s attention by coughing loudly, leaving everyone roaring.
Katie says when Calvin sees Kasper, he hisses, but the service dog just ignores him.
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Acquiring Kasper was a patience-testing, five-year process for the Mertens.
Carol says they met Dogs with Wings at a fair sponsored by the Cerebral Palsy Association of Calgary in 2008.
Alex and family were then evaluated by the group.
Carol says officials came several times, making sure her family would be responsible for Kasper’s health and well-being and they would be willing and able to follow the protocols set up for maintaining the pooch’s service.
One of the many protocols is to keep Kasper’s weight at 60-65 lbs., which means he can’t be fed human food.
“We have to weigh him every month and send in his weight for the first year to make sure that he doesn’t gain anything,” says Carol.
“They just want optimal health for him.”
Kasper weighs 61 lbs. and although the girls are tempted to give him treats, they just shower him with love.
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Although Kasper came to the family ready to work, his trainer stayed with the Mertens for three weeks to let them in on the secrets of how to make the pooch work.
Kasper must wear a jacket with the organization’s name and logo while he’s working.
Carol says Alex’s assistant is extremely intelligent.
“As soon as you hold up his jacket, he’s like, ‘I’m ready. Let’s go!’ It’s almost like he’s telling us we aren’t challenging him enough. It’s really funny.”
While the dog is on duty he doesn’t play.
The Mertens say it can be challenging when they’re out with the adorable dog.
Recently, while shopping, somebody they know spotted Alex and Kasper.
The fellow came up and chatted, which led to an attempt at patting the pooch, which was on duty.
Alex says she politely told the man Kasper is a working dog and not to be patted.
“ ‘I’m so sorry, he’s a working dog and he’s got a service dog jacket on’ and then they understand,” she says.
Like any working dog, Kasper gets to play, but his jacket must be off and he must be told another magic word.
“Release” is the command that tells Kasper he’s off duty and is allowed to play.
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Paula Bildfell, co-ordinator of the newly established Calgary branch of Dogs with Wings, says there’s a long wait-list of potential clients.
More than 40 people from across the province are on the roster that keeps growing.
The wait for a dog is typically two to three years and Bildfell says it’s difficult to tell people about the wait-time.
“They’re hoping for independence and it’s hard to wait for that,” she says.
It is a complicated process of matching a dog with the specific needs of a patient.
Some dogs are good at guiding and helping the blind, others are best paired with an autism patient, while some are best with helping wheelchair-bound kids.
The group recently opened a branch in Calgary, fuelled by a need across Alberta.
And as the demand grows, the need for volunteers who raise the pups to become working dogs also increases.
“We need more volunteers to raise the puppies. They are having difficulties finding foster homes,” says Bildfell.
Raising puppies is not an easy task, she says.
“You take a puppy for a year. You do so much with that puppy and then at the end of the year you have to give the dog back,” she says.
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Towards the end of the hour-long interview, Alex releases Kasper from duty by removing his jacket and uttering the magic word, “release”.
He immediately sheds his focused demeanour and turns into a playful creature.
The girls chase him in the family’s spacious front yard, where a swing and a volleyball net were set up.
As the triplets play with Kasper, their parents watch and reiterate what they hope for Alex in the future.
They say they just want their daughter to gain more independence.
Alex says early on in the interview that with Kasper around, she’s looking forward to many outings on her own.
“I hope to go places independently like the movies or the mall, stores and stuff like that,” she says.
Now, she can do that, with her new best friend and the command words they both know retain their magical powers.
On Twitter: @SUNRenatoGandia
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