Graduate meets challenges with canine helpby Mona Prufer
Jade Perry always thought she'd walk across the stage at commencement with her best friend Katie. Walking isn't easy for Jade, so she planned to hold onto the Great Dane service dog to help with her balance.
“Katie was with me through all my three and a half years at Coastal Carolina University,” says Perry, who will graduate this month with a bachelor's degree in political science. “I couldn't have done it without her.” She even planned to fashion a mortarboard complete with tassel and a gown for the dog to wear.
But then, just weeks before the Dec. 17 commencement, Katie was diagnosed with bone cancer and had to be put down. It was terrible for Jade, who relied so much on her beloved canine companion. “They're around 24/7, and they make your life so much easier.”
Perry has Friedreich's ataxia, a disease that affects the nervous system, making balance difficult and walking nearly impossible. She gets around in a wheelchair that the dog pulled, but can walk short distances with help. Before getting the wheelchair, she was able to walk with Katie's assistance. “Katie kept me walking for six months longer than expected,” says Perry.
Jade's new dog, Pistol, is a 2-year-old Harlequin Great Dane. Perry flew to Ipswich, Mass., in November to pick up Pistol, who sat beside her in a seat on the flight back to Myrtle Beach.
“It was like traveling with Lindsey Lohan!” says Perry. “Everyone on the plane was snapping photos of us with their cell phones.”
Pistol is white with black spots, as compared to Katie's black with white spots markings. Some people, including a professor in one of her classes, have not even noticed that she has a new dog.
But Perry has. Pistol did not fully complete her service dog training in Massachusetts before her assignment. “I was so desperate for a new dog that I asked them [Service Dog Project] if I could finish the training myself,” says Perry as the 150-pound dog circled the wheelchair, occasionally even attempting to climb into her lap. “We're still getting used to each other.”
Perry, who is from Carver, Mass., “a really small town next to Plymouth,” began falling down in high school and was eventually diagnosed with Friedreich's ataxia. She chose CCU after looking for a college with a warmer climate, and she has loved it here.
“If there was a law school here, I would just stay,” says Perry, who enters the Massachusetts School of Law in January. She's not sure which legal specialization she will choose but would love to work with people with disabilities.
When Perry got her first service dog but before she began using her wheelchair, businesses “kept kicking me out of places because they didn't believe I have a disability,” says the student, noting that the dogs wear vests that say “Service Dog, Do Not Pet.”
Only Great Danes are used by Service Dog Project for mobility-impaired people because they are large, weigh a lot and can help people get up if they fall, as well as assist in balance with walking. They also pick up and fetch items, and they are well suited for the home and office environment, as well as the classroom, though navigating in crowded hallways can be a challenge for a person in a wheelchair with a large dog.
“They are just the best dogs,” says Perry. “People used to stare a lot when I was falling. It could be 10 in the morning, and they would ask it I was drunk.” But she has met the challenges life has thrown at her, learning to go from “tears to tell-offs.”
When not going to classes or studying, Perry took Katie to nursing homes to visit seniors. She has already taken Pistol to Brightwater, a retirement center near Carolina Forest, where she takes off the vest and lets the dog enjoy lots of hugs and kisses. “She loves it, she loves the attention,” says Perry.
So now the countdown to graduation is under way – “Sixteen days!” Perry said on the day she is interviewed in the Edwards Courtyard with Pistol leaning against her, bored and ready to move.
And will Pistol be walking across the stage at commencement? Perry is waiting to see how the dog's training goes, but one thing is for sure – “I will be walking across that stage,” she says, maybe with a big black-and-white spotted dog, maybe without. “Pistol will be there for my law school commencement. Maybe for the Coastal one; we'll see.”