Service dog proves to be the perfect sidekick for girl with cerebral palsy

The Dunckelman family

Service dogs are specially bred for the ideal temperament and health needed to work beside and enhance independence for people with disabilities. The specialized dogs respond to more than 40 commands, doing everything from picking up items to opening doors. These essential tasks give individuals the help they need, but one of the greatest contributions is unconditional friendship.

Such is true for 15-year-old MacKenzie Dunckelman and her assistance dog, Illia. When MacKenzie was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, her parents had to adjust to a new way of life. People would often stare at their daughter, pointing because she’s different, or avoid speaking to them altogether.

In the past year since the black Labrador/Golden Retriever cross has joined the Dunckelman’s family, Illia has brought a spirit of love and connection to their home and anywhere they go.

“We take Illia everywhere. She’s just brought a lot of joy to MacKenzie’s life and to our life too,” says Lisa Dunckelman, MacKenzie’s mother. “She’s part of the family, and she just blended in perfectly.”

This hard working and good-natured dog was bred and trained by Canine Companions for Independence which joined forces with Baylor Scott & White Health to bring a new, philanthropically supported assistance dog training center to North Texas. The Dunckelmans were part of this opportunity and were thrilled to go through this process locally.

Desire for a Service Dog

MacKenzie’s parents are always mindful of ways to help their daughter, and on their way back from a trip for their 20-year anniversary they saw a service dog at the airport. Lisa and MacKenzie’s father, Allen, started visiting with the couple on the airport bus. As they continued talking, the Dunckelmans thought it might be something to benefit MacKenzie and their family.

At that time, the closest Canine Companions for Independence training center was in California, but during the application process, the Dunckelmans were invited to participate in the new center 45 minutes from their home in Haslet, Texas. The application process requires on-site interviews, extensive 10-day training, and other guidelines so the close proximity was extremely beneficial for the Dunckelmans.

Once their application was accepted, they were invited to attend a two-week training class. At the initial encounter with the dogs, the instructors brought out five dogs for the participants to interact with, evaluating which dog would be the best fit for each participant. During this meeting, Illia snuggled right up to MacKenzie, letting MacKenzie rub on her and play with her.

“It became evident pretty quick that Illia was the one for her,” Lisa said. “Her mannerisms fit really well. It was kind of a neat bond when we finally found out that she was going to be ours.”

After the Dunckelmans were paired with Illia, MacKenzie and her parents worked to learn proper training and care guidelines, before bringing her home.

“When we graduated with Illia after about a two year process, coincidentally we were able to see the lady from the airport again,” Lisa said. “Now I try to tell other families about service dogs and help them apply.”

Connecting with Illia

Now that Illia is home with MacKenzie, the two sleep together every night. MacKenzie knows Illia is her dog, and takes responsibility to feed her every day. These special service dogs are more than pets, however, as they have strict guidelines for their weight, diet, ongoing follow up and grooming. It’s a small price to pay for all that Illia does for her.

“When we go out with Illia, it’s a social bridge for MacKenzie to connect with other kids,” Lisa said. “When the dog is with us they don’t just see her wheelchair, they also see the dog and aren’t so afraid.”

Lisa said that she usually has the children or adults ask MacKenzie if it is alright to pet her dog, giving her a sense of ownership and a way to bring her into the conversation.

“She just started high school, so it’s a very difficult time anyhow,” Lisa said. “When the dog comes on campus the kids pay more attention to her, and Illia does wonders for MacKenzie.”

MacKenzie and Illia recently rode on their homecoming float together, and when people ask her about her dog, her face lights up. Illia is extremely well behaved, gentle and friendly to everyone she meets.

The meaning of the Russian name ‘Illia’ is: God Is Lord. When Lisa heard this, she laughed to herself and said, “That explains a lot of it.”

The name was determined by Illia’s birth in the litter named beginning with the letter I, but Lisa feels that she’s truly a gift from above. She’s been a blessing to their entire family, including MacKenzie’s siblings Anna and Aidan.

“We’re proud to represent Canine Companions for Independence and Baylor Scott & White Health,” Lisa said. “It’s such a wonderful organization. They really take pride in what they do, and Illia was given to us entirely free of charge. In these days it’s just phenomenal that that can happen.”

Your donations help sustain this gift of friendship, as the new training center prepares for its grand opening, November 2015. Make your gift today.

About the author

Jill Taylor
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I contribute content and skills as a freelance writer for Baylor Scott & White Health. I enjoy improving our connection with our readers, patients and communities by assisting with a wide range of writing projects.

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Service dog proves to be the perfect sidekick for girl with cerebral palsy