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Othello the service dog is girl’s best friend

© Leesburg Today - 06/29/2015

Othello, a 2-year-old Labrador/Golden retriever assistance dog, can do a lot for 10-year-old Ava McLin of Manassas.

He can open the refrigerator door and grab a bottle of water. He can pick up toys or stuffed animals and bring them to her. In all, Othello has been trained to respond to more than 50 commands.

But likely the most important thing Othello does for Ava is be her friend.

""Othello is a true lifesaver for Ava,"" said her mom Anya McLin. ""He is a true companion for her, patient, listens, not skiddish about her big power chair and not nervous riding in a clunky, loud wheelchair van.""

Ava has Spinal Muscular Atrophy, a childhood version of Lou Gehrig's disease. It's an incurable muscle-wasting disease that impacts the ability to stand, sit and eventually eat and breathe independently. She was diagnosed when she was 10 months old.

The family had been living in a two-story house in Reston when Ava was born. As she grew older, it became exceedingly difficult for her mother to carry her up and down the stairs.

The McLins moved into a rambler-style house in Manassas late last year, which they are retrofitting to accommodate Ava and her wheelchair.

While Ava had been going to school in Fairfax and had some friends, she hasn't made any since the move and is being homeschooled. She also was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome over the winter, making it harder for her to make friends.

""This year for the first time, Ava has had some sad episodes … realizing that she won't walk and the wheelchair is permanent,"" Anya McLin said. ""She has started to see herself as ugly. She won't sing in front of people anymore, quit choir and is embarrassed a lot by her wheelchair when we are out and she bumps into things.""

""We got Othello just in time,"" she said.

The McLins got him in February from Canine Companions for Independence -- a national non-profit that provides assistance dogs for children and adults with disabilities.

""This is all done at no cost to the recipient, thanks to our generous donors,"" said John Bentzinger, spokesman for the Northeast Region of Canine Companions. ""It costs more than $45,000 to raise and train each dog.""

The non-profit has its own breeding program of Labrador retrievers, Golden retrievers and crosses in California. When the pups are weaned at about 8 weeks old, they are flown to the five regional headquarters where they are adopted by puppy raisers, Bentzinger said.

""The puppy raisers are really the backbones of our organization, and we couldn't serve without them,"" he said. ""The volunteers take the pups into their home, raising them, teaching them basic commands and socialization skills. The socialization is perhaps the most important, because the dogs need to be exposed to any and all types of surroundings.""

When the dogs reach about 18 months old, they are returned to their regional headquarters. Othello came from the Northeast Region headquarters in Long Island, N.Y.

""They begin six months of advanced training with our nationally-renowned instructors where they learn more than 50 commands,"" Bentzinger said. ""During that time, our instructors have a chance to give a detailed evaluation of each dog, and based on the dogs different strengths, a person with disabilities who is on our waiting list is invited to attend two weeks of team training at their regional headquarters, and be matched with an assistance dog.""

""Canine Companions treated us like family,"" said Anya McLin, who went through the training with Ava. ""It was awesome, life-changing, invaluable training.""

Ava is a sweet, quiet little girl who enjoys tea parties. She also really enjoys showing visitors what Othello can do. And he does a lot.

""He picks up things Ava drops all day: pens, crayons, toys,"" Anya McLin said. ""She was so proud getting herself some food out of the fridge the other day without asking us. And, she has learned to ask him now to jump on her bed to get her one of her stuffed animals or small pillows.""

Before Othello came to live with them, Ava often called out in the middle of the night for her mom to come sleep with her. Not anymore. That's Othello's job.

""She calls Othello 'Sleeping Beauty' when he snores in bed next to her,"" Anya McLin said.

Weekends used to be difficult for Anya and her husband Randy. Ava wanted to play with them. With no family or siblings in the area, they would tag-team their time with her, not leaving time for much else.

That is not the case anymore. Othello is always right there beside Ava, giving her all his attention, as any best friend would do.

When asked if she talks to her best friend. Ava smiled shyly and said, ""Sometimes.""

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

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