Blind World Magazine

Puppy Love.

December 29, 2005.
Hollister Freelance, California.

Hollister - Mary Church is a lot like other 11-year-old girls.

She's an honor roll student at Rancho San Justo Middle School, enjoys Seventeen magazine and has the occasional spat with her older sister, Jay. The only thing that separates Mary from virtually every other sixth grader is the fact that she was diagnosed as blind only a few months after she was born.

Not once, however, has Mary allowed her disability to slow her down, choosing instead to pave the way for other blind children both in San Benito County and across the nation. When she was a toddler, Mary became the youngest person in America to walk with a cane, and this fall, she became the first blind student to attend Rancho. She attends regular classes without the assistance of an aide - a fact of which she is justifiably proud - relying on herself and occasional assistance from fellow students.

Mary received another distinction this fall, one that earned her a furry companion named Vickie. In September, Mary became the first child in America to be paired up with a K9 Buddy as part of a new program for blind children set to launch in 2006.

"I really didn't know anything about the problem when my aunt called to tell me about it," Mary said. "But I had wanted a dog a few years back, so I wanted to go for it."

In America, guide dogs are rarely given to people under 18 years of age and never to people under 16. Over a year of costly training is put into a guide dog and is considered too great an investment to entrust to a child, who may neglect to take care of the dog properly.

However, a number of dogs fail to complete guide dog training, either because of health problems or an excitable temperament. While these dogs can't become official guide dogs, they often make excellent companions for children and can be great teachers for a blind child who hopes to own a guide dog one day.

"She doesn't really help exactly the way a guide dog would," Mary said. "But she stops at curbs for me and I'm getting used to walking with a dog instead of just a cane. Mostly she makes me feel more confidant."

In order to receive a K9 buddy, Mary and her family needed to pass a battery of interviews determining their ability to care for a dog, and what sort of dog personality would best fit in the family. Before the Churches could even think about adopting a K9 buddy, Mary had to learn with a demo dog how to groom and take care of one.

"Sometimes we'll paint Vickie's nails," said Mary's mom, Kathleen. "It's kind of silly, but they say it's a bonding experience and teaches her to sit still for grooming, so why not?"

When Mary and Vickie were introduced, the family says it was love at first sight. The large Golden Labrador fit right in at the Church household - her rambunctious personality earning her the name "Rocket Dog."

"She's really an amazing animal," Kathleen said. "She knows when we're going to leave the house and she loves everyone in the family. She really pays attention to everyone."

While children like Mary already have K9 Buddies in Australia, Mary and Vickie were an experiment here in the U.S. After January, 75 lucky children between the ages of 11 and 17 are set up to receive their own K9 Buddies. In a year or two, the Churches are considering spending the summer in Canada, where children are allowed to train with real guide dogs, and possibly find a new friend for both Mary and Vickie.

After only a few months, Vickie has become popular not only within her own family, but with other kids in the neighborhood. The Churches are excited to be celebrating their first Christmas with Vickie, but Mary is already thinking ahead. A longtime animal lover, she hopes to one day attend the University of California at Davis for their animal science program, and become either a zookeeper or a guide dog trainer herself.

"I feel really lucky to have Vickie," Mary said. "I think she's the best dog anyone could ever have."

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