Cape Gazette
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Special dog has special owner

Lewes corgi helps students learn about reading, disability
By Billie Criswell | Apr 25, 2012
Photo by: Daren Criswell Mandi.

Many dog owners have special relationships with their pets.  Diane Miller and her 12-year-old Pembroke Welsh corgi Mandi are no exception.

Their special bond was formed more than seven years ago when Mandy was just a single AKC point away from a championship, and Miller pulled her out of shows. Instead, she enlisted her as a certified therapy dog in the Literacy Education Assistance Pups program.

Mandi is among the group's founding K-9 members.  LEAP dogs visit schools, and students practice reading to them. Mandi has worked hard, clocking more than 100 sessions with kindergarten students at Bethel Christian School in Lewes. The program itself has also grown and now has more than 50 volunteers and more than 60 dogs. It now extends to more than 14 facilities including libraries and homes of traumatically brain-injured patients.


Pup on wheels

One would think that Mandi’s civic duties alone were what set her apart from her doggie peers, but looking at her tells another story. Beyond happy eyes and a fawn-colored face there’s something that makes her very different.  Mandi suffers from a progressive disease of the spinal cord known as degenerative myelopathy, the canine equivalent of Lou Gehrig’s disease.  To get around, Mandi has a set of wheels for her back legs.

The spry corgi began experiencing symptoms at age 7, just a few years after beginning service as a therapy dog. It started as a loss of coordination in her hind legs and became progressively worse. What makes this disease in dogs frustrating for an owner, though, is that often, it isn’t immediately diagnosed. Instead, other diseases are ruled out and the diagnosis settles on degenerative myelopathy. Even knowing, though, doesn’t change the fact that there is no cure or treatment.

Lucky for Mandi, Miller is proactive and compassionate; as Mandi became weaker, she swung into action. When Mandi could no longer walk, she was fitted for a K9 cart. At first, Miller said Mandi was apprehensive about her new wheels. But, since she'll do virtually anything for a treat, Mandi was highly motivated to get used to her new mode of transportation.

Miller also knew that she’d have to reintroduce Mandi and her new wheels to the students.

“When it was time to introduce Mandi in her wheels, I read a short story to the whole class about a dachshund who needed a wheeled cart,” said Miller. She then surprised the children by bringing out Mandi’s wheels. She says the students thought it was cool, and as simply as that, Mandi began a new role teaching children about disabilities as she helps them learn to read.


DNA test could prevent disease

Miller said Mandi is happy, healthy and not in any pain related to her disease. Miller explains in the future, fewer dogs will have degenerative myelopathy, because DNA testing is now available. For about $65, breeders can test for the disease and eventually breed out the disease altogether.

Miller said the disease could already have been eliminated, but if a dog is a perfect AKC standard, its breeder might prefer to breed the dog even if it might pass on the disease.  In that case, the breeder would not do the DNA test, and the disease will continue.  Miller is quick to point out this isn’t an all or nothing game; dogs can have perfect standards under the right circumstances and not have to suffer Mandi’s disease.

Miller also said people who want to prevent breeders from breeding dogs likely to have degenerative myelopathy should simply refuse to buy from a breeder who won’t test their dogs.

“Always ask the breeder if they have done a DNA check before breeding,” she said. “This disease can be wiped out through conscientious breeding.”

As for Mandi, Miller said that eventually she will lose all function in her legs. Until then, Mandi will continue to do her work with LEAP as well as her work at P.U.P.S. of Lewes, where she works with Miller two days a week.

“We take each day one at a time and treasure every day we have with Mandi. She is a very special dog.”

And indeed, she also has a very special owner.

For more information  go to caninegeneticdiseases.net or leapreading.org.

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