Service dog starts school career with Homewood girl

Sawyer Horcher, 9, has a new medical device. It's black, furry, friendly and goes by the name of Kilo. 

Kilo is Sawyer's service dog, a 1 1/2-year-old black Labrador retriever trained to assist people with complex health issues and multiple disabilities. Sawyer suffers from Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a condition that affects connective tissue and results in joint and skin problems and chronic pain. She also has ketotic hypoglycemia, which results in bouts of low blood sugar.

Kilo is the first service animal in the history of Homewood School District 153, according to a post on the district's Facebook page, so their first day of school together on Tuesday, Jan. 23, was a special occasion.

Introducing Kilo to school
  Sawyer Horcher, 9, with her 
  new service dog, Kilo.
(Photos
  by Eric Crump/H-F Chronicle)
 

Riann Cambio, founder of Lifeline Assistance Dogs and Kilo's trainer, spent the day at Churchill School helping students and staff learn about service dogs and what they do for their handlers.

He speaks from experience. He first learned to be a service dog handler more than a decade ago when he sought one to help him deal with his own health issues. He said finding the right organization to provide a trained dog was difficult, and that's why he started Lifeline.

He described the Churchill School staff's approach to the situation as very positive.

"Their biggest concerns were, "How can we make this as seamless as possible for Sawyer and Kilo?'" he said.

"Homewood School District 153 is excited to welcome Kilo to our district and the Churchill School family," Director of Student Support Services Melanie Mandisodza said. "It has been a wonderful experience for Homewood School District 153, to work so closely with the Horcher family as they embark on this journey for Sawyer."

She said the Horcher family contacted the district well in advance to discuss the possibility of sending Sawyer's service dog to school with her.

"We have worked closely together to ensure a smooth entry," she said. "The Horcher family has provided information about the training for Sawyer's service dog, Kilo, his work certificate, as well as his immunizations and the specific tasks he will be performing for Sawyer."

She said Churchill School announced Kilo in their school newsletter and sent a letter home to parents.

"Churchill School administration has surveyed classrooms to find if any students have dog allergies, and will address each student's need individually," she said.* 

During his visit to the school, Cambio's main message for students was that Kilo might be a big friendly dog, but when he's at school, he's working for Sawyer and needs to be treated like someone doing a job.

"Their vest or their harness is like their uniform," he said. "When they are wearing their uniform they are working. Just like we wouldn't interrupt someone else when they are working, we don't interrupt the dog when they are working."

That raised questions among students, who wondered whether service dogs "get to be normal dogs."

They do, Cambio said, but within certain boundaries. Kilo can run and play fetch and roll in the mud, as any dog would, but it has to be under Sawyer's direction. The relationship between dog and handler needs to be maintained and respected.

Making adjustments
The Horchers already have a pet dog, so learning about the different needs of a service dog is one of the challenges the family is dealing with as Kilo settles into their lives.
 

  Kilo's trainer, Riann 
  Cambio, of Lifeline 
  Assistance Dogs, 
  explains how Kilo 
  can help Sawyer deal 
  with the symptoms
  of her health conditions. 

 

"It's understandably difficult for everyone in the family," Cambio said. "One of the worst things you can do with a service dog is treat it like a pet. They are medical equipment. They are an aid."

Managing a living aid is a big responsibility, and that's why most organizations that train service dogs will not provide one for children as young as Sawyer. In most cases, children need to be teenagers, and some organizations will not provide a dog for anyone under 16.

Lifeline doesn't have a minimum age requirement for placing dogs, but staff assesses whether a child appears to be able to handle the responsibility.

Rachel Horcher, Sawyer's mother, said her daughter is learning quickly how to be a good handler.

"It's a lot of responsibility for a 9-year-old," she said. "It's like having a child. She has done phenomenal. When she needs help, she asks for it."

Cambio said his main task during the 10 days prior to that first day of school with Kilo was working with Sawyer, helping her learn commands, understand Kilo's behavior and abilities, learn how to manuever with Kilo in crowded public places and how to deal with people in public who might stare or question her.

"There have been a lot of outings," Horcher said. The family, with Cambio and Kilo, went to stores and restaurants to give Sawyer practice handling public situations.

People commonly want to pet dogs they meet in public, but Sawyer said she has a response prepared for those times. She will tell them, "he's working."

Cambio said helping Sawyer understand how to respond to people is important not just for her but for the sake of others with invisible health problems and canine helpers.

"We welcome questions," he said. "Questions are how we educate."

Kilo's capabilities
Sawyer needed lessons and practice, but Kilo's adjustment was easier.

"Kilo has literally been in training since the day he was born," Cambio said. The dog's early preparation involved helping him develop certain traits that would help him quickly adapt to and serve a person with unique disabilities.

Kilo was selected for Sawyer because his stature makes him able to provide physical support for her when she needs it. He can also pull her wheelchair when she is unable to walk, following her commands to change direction.

One condition she has affects blood sugar, and Kilo is trained to notice evidence her blood sugar level is low and can notify an adult.

"For Sawyer we were looking for a dog with a clear on-off switch," Cambrio said. He saw the need for a dog that could sense and quickly react to changes in situation, to be quiet when Sawyer needed rest and to shift into action when she goes to school or hospital visits.

The journey
Horcher said the arrival of Kilo is a milestone. The process of finding a service dog began about two years ago. Horcher said she learned through networking with others who suffer from conditions similar to Sawyer's that service dogs could be effective resources.

She began searching for an organization to provide a trained dog and raising money.

Finding the right organization was made difficult because of Sawyer's age and her multiple conditions. The first organization she found did not work out, but about 14 months ago she made contact with Cambrio at Lifeline.

That was an important step, but the next step was raising the money for Kilo. Lifeline's website notes that the average cost of a trained dog is about $11,000. Insurance doesn't cover the cost, Horcher said.

"The community really rallied for us," she said. "People have been amazing."

To raise the money, the family opened an online site for collecting donations. Local businesses held fundraisers. Sawyer did a fingernail painting event.

Independence
The kind of aid Kilo can provide is expected to make a great difference to her family, she said. Sawyer's complicated and often fragile health has made mother and daughter almost inseparable.

Horcher said she knows that, like all kids, her daughter will soon want more independence, and she sees Kilo as the means for Sawyer to have more freedom without jeopardizing her safety.

"I can't fix her, but I'll do whatever I can for her quality of life."


Correction: Originally, the story incorrectly said a survey about allergies was sent home to parents. The Chronicle regrets the error.



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