Service dog is DeSplinter’s ‘best Christmas present’
“Get help, Mango,”?urges Melanie “Mel”?DeSplinter as her yellow lab rushes to press an emergency button. A few moments later, DeSplinter repeats the command in a monotone whisper. Again, the dog rushes for the button.
The exercise is part of Mango’s training, as she learns to respond to commands, regardless of voice intonation. The 18-month old dog is in the process of becoming a certified service dog.
As a service dog, Mango will spend her life assisting DeSplinter, a paraplegic who lives in rural Geneseo.
The pair were matched via PAWS With A Cause, a not-for-profit agency in Michigan that trains assistance dogs.
The dogs start training to become service dogs shortly after they’re weaned and spend their first year with volunteers who initially train the dogs.
Later, they’re matched with their new owner, and training for both dog and human continue. Mango arrived in Geneseo on Dec. 5, and has been with DeSplinter ever since.
“I instantly fell in love with her,” said DeSplinter. “She was my dog after that very first night.”
A trainer visits the pair once a week as the dog works toward certification, which Mango is expected to receive in a few months. Both Mango and DeSplinter are learning how to operate together. “It’s a work in progress,” said DeSplinter.
Having lived on a farm her entire life, DeSplinter said she’s always had pets, including other dogs, namely a beloved golden retriever named Jasper.
Jasper was by DeSplinter’s side in 1999 when the woman was hit by a car while riding an ATV near her home.
“He had been running by my side when I got hit. I was pretty messed up, but I kept worrying that he’d been hit, too,” said DeSplinter.
The accident left DeSplinter a paraplegic and, while hospitalized, her thoughts often turned to her dog. “I?kept telling the doctor I needed to see my dog,” she said.
At home, Jasper would return to the spot in the road where he’d last seen DeSplinter.
Once the two were reunited, DeSplinter said the dog, which she affectionately calls “J-Dog” was her “nursemaid and best friend.”
“He always seemed to know what I?was thinking. He was a wonderful dog,” said DeSplinter.
Three years ago, Jasper developed lymphoma and died shortly after that Christmas.
“After he died, I wasn’t sure I wanted another dog. I got a cat, which was fine, but it just wasn’t a dog,” said DeSplinter.
In April 2009, she wrote a letter to PAWS With A Cause to see if she’d be eligible for a service dog. By December, Mango was hers.
DeSplinter said her experiences with PAWS With A Cause have been “wonderful.”
“They videotaped me and my house and my situation and got to know my personality. Everything was very well studied before they picked out a dog for me,” she said.
Mango is trained to open and close doors, turn on and off light switches, retrieve items dropped by DeSplinter and assist with other daily activities.
The pair have been “hooked at the hip” since Mango arrived, and working with the dog has been a learning experience for DeSplinter as well. “I’ve had to learn a number of commands. She doesn’t do anything unless you tell her. She goes to bed when you tell her, she goes to the bathroom when you tell her, she eats when you tell her. She’s definitely a scheduled animal.”
DeSplinter said she’s been impressed with Mango’s intelligence. “She has great eye contact. She’s constantly looking at me so she understands what I’m asking her to do.”
Training sessions for the duo have included trips to Walmart and Farm &?Fleet in Geneseo, and
DeSplinter plans to take future outings with Mango.
When wearing her service dog vest, Mango is officially “at work.”?
“When she’s on-the-job, people aren’t suppose to pet her because she’s working,” said DeSplinter. “Kids come up to her and want to pet her, but it’s been a learning experience for me to have to say ‘no’ to people who just want to be nice to my dog.”
Because Mango arrived in early December, DeSplinter considers the dog “the best Christmas present I’ve had in a long time.”
“Jasper died at Christmastime, so getting Mango this time of year was perfect,” she said, adding she believes Jasper may have played a roll in Mango’s arrival.
“I know it sounds silly, but I’ve had a lot of guardian angels, and I think Jasper was one of them,” said DeSplinter.
Having Mango in her life has been “a wonderful gift” she said.
“Give us a few years together, and then watch out,”?she joked, adding the pair are known as M&M — Mel and Mango.
“It’s one thing to have a pet, but to have a pet who can help you out and offer you that unconditional love, it’s great,” she said.
The cost to breed/rescue, raise, train and place an assistance dog ordinarly exceeds $18,000, but PAWS With A Cause doesn’t require their clients to contribute to the sponsorship of their own dog. Instead, the organization relies on donations.
Donors may give funds to PAWS With A Cause in general, or may restrict donations to help an individual client.
For more information about PAWS With A Cause or how to donate, visit www.pawswithacause.org.