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Companion dog brings greater independence to Parkton man with muscular dystrophy

For the North County News
Companion dog means greater independence for young man with muscular dystrophy

There are sure to be some Christmas presents under the Lorenz's tree in Parkton for the family's newest member.

But the new guy, Keaton, a Labrador/golden retriever mix, wouldn't think of touching any gift, even if it contained tasty dog bones — unless he receives a command from Beckley, 19, or his father, Mike.

Keaton is Beckley's assistance dog, given to him in August by Canine Companions for Independence. Since 1975, the nonprofit group has placed more than 5,000 dogs with children and adults with disabilities. Keaton is one of 479 placed in the United States this year.

Beckley has muscular dystrophy and has used a wheelchair since he was a third-grader at Fifth District Elementary School. Keaton's job is to help Beckley navigate life from that wheelchair and to provide companionship. He helps with everyday tasks, such as turning lights on and off, opening and closing doors or drawers and picking up anything Beckley drops.

"He's very playful and it's exciting to have him," Beckley said. "One of the best things he does is snuggle with me at night before he goes into his crate to sleep. He's warmer than a blanket."

Both Beckley and his father work with Keaton daily to make sure he remembers 40 commands. If Keaton doesn't perform a task, he receives a correction in the form of a downward yank on a leash attached to his collar. Because Beckley doesn't have the arm strength or coordination to pull the leash, his father takes on that task.

Beckley said Keaton's most important chore is to pick up things he drops. "Get, Keaton. Get," Beckley and his father said as a remote was put on the kitchen floor. When the dog had it in his mouth, they said, "Give, Keaton. Give." After the dog gently placed it on Bentley's lap, he received a dog treat from Mike.

They then did the same exercise with a credit card. It took Keaton a little longer to maneuver the slim plastic card into his mouth, but he successfully placed it on Beckley's lap, too. The dog left no teeth marks. Just a little slobber.

Keaton stays home two days a week while Beckley, a 2015 Hereford High School graduate, attends Carroll County Community College. He doesn't bring Keaton with him because he can't correct the dog's actions. A neighbor, Ray Lunn, drives Beckley to and from school and stays with him during classes.

Once Beckley is back home, Keaton sleeps at the base of the wheelchair. But he is still all dog — his ears perk up at the sight of the family's three cats and he loves to lick visitors' hands.

With the command "release," Keaton romps around the fenced-in backyard with Beckley's three sisters,21, 13 and 9. Keaton also goes for walks with Beckley around the neighborhood. He's attached to the wheelchair by a leash and trots along at just the right pace.

Although Keaton lives with the Lorenzes, he is still owned by CCI. Mike and Beckley must take re-certification tests each year and promise to take Keaton to the veterinarian regularly.

Before he came to Parkton, Keaton spent 18 months in Severna Park where the Anna and Charles Radle family raised and trained him. They own Fieldstone Animal Inn in Millersville.

CCI breeds its own dogs and is always in need of "puppy raisers." The Radles applied and got Keaton when he was 8 weeks old. They socialized him by bringing him wherever they went — school, work, stores. Their children, then 8 and 10, knew Keaton was not their dog to keep, just theirs for a while.

After 18 months, Keaton went to intense training with professionals at CCI in New York. The nonprofit organization estimates it cost more than $50,000 to raise and train a dog. Only four out of 10 are accepted into the program, said Debra MacKenzie, director of development for CCI's northeast region.

Loving life

Beckley was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy when he was 6 and he started having trouble climbing stairs. Although the diagnosis was disheartening, Michele and Mike vowed to raise Beckley to live his life to the fullest.

"We have always strived to treat him as we treat our other three children. The girls in turn have learned compassion, empathy, and kindness that living with Beckley could only teach them," Michele said. "He told us years ago, 'I'm going to love the life I have'."

That happy energy earned Beckley "Student of the Year" recognition by Baltimore County Commission on Disabilities in 2008, when he was a sixth-grader at Hereford Middle School.

While his parents admired Beckley's positive attitude, they also knew he would benefit from four-legged companionship and help.

They started looking into an assistance animal for Beckley in 2014. They even investigated service monkeys until they found out they're not placed in home with children. The Lorenzes then heard about CCI and sent in an application in February 2014.

"They sounded like such a great group that we thought we'd have to wait at least two years to get a dog," Michele said. "We sent them a Christmas card that first year so they wouldn't forget us."

MacKenzie said more volunteer puppy raisers would shorten the waiting list.

On June 18, 2015 — her last day of teaching second grade at Owings Mills Elementary School — Michele got a call from CCI saying Beckley had been accepted into the program.

"I just started crying," she said. "This whole program is so wonderful and it is all free — the dog and the training. It's amazing."

The next day was Beckley's 19th birthday and his parents surprised him with the best present ever — a new life with a dog as his constant companion.

But first, Beckley and his father spent two weeks learning about and working with assistance dogs. They went to team training in New York and spent each day with classes, lectures, quizzes and outings with dogs.

"It was a great facility and they really made us work," said Mike Lorenz, who works at McCormick & Co. "We had a quiz every night and they weren't easy. They were actually really hard."

Beckley said he met six dogs, then got to pick his top three. It didn't take long for Keaton to become "top dog"

"He was just the easiest to work with," Beckley said. "I was so excited he was going to be mine."

On Aug. 14, Anna Radle handed Beckley the dog on a leash at a graduation ceremony.

"It was the most rewarding thing I've ever done," she said. "I knew it would be hard to hand Keaton over, but I saw that Keaton's eyes never left Beckley's face. As soon as I saw that, I knew it was all worth it. We've already signed up for another puppy."

The next day — Keaton's second birthday — he arrived in Maryland to start a new life.

For more information about Canine Companions for Independence, visit cci.org or call 1-800-572-BARK.

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