Cindy and Joseph Graham are hoping that their dog Harley can become an official service dog to their family, but especially to their severely-disabled 10-year-old son, Michael.
The Grahams have been therapeutic foster parents for seven other children over the years, after their biological children were grown.
Michael was born to a drug addict at six months of gestation, and his mother disappeared from the hospital shortly after he was born. He spent the next few months intubated and detoxing. The right side of his brain never developed and a hole consumes some of the left side.
“We received him at two-and-a-half months old, and officially adopted him at 18 months,” Cindy Graham said.
Michael’s deficits range from cerebral palsy, diabetes and epilepsy, to Addison’s Disease, which requires him to have daily growth hormone injections. He is also blind and has had multiple surgeries to correct deformities in his feet and legs.
When they adopted their pit bull Harley at 6-weeks-old, he became Michael’s baby, Cindy said.
She said Michael tends to scratch and hit himself, and has a tendency toward biting, but Harley’s presence can significantly calm him when he is in those moods and distracts him from hurting himself or others.
Michael’s demeanor changes when Harley sidles up to his chair, and their connection is evident.
The Grahams say that Harley is an exceptionally tolerant dog, who has never growled at or bitten Michael, despite his uncontrolled movements.
“When Harley has had enough, he turns and faces the other way and sits down,” Mr. Graham said, showing a short video of the dog playing with Michael.
The family has been working with local agency Canine Angels Service Dogs (CASD), and is trying to raise the funds needed to get Harley trained to be a service dog for the family.
Rick Kaplan, president of CASD, said Harley is very sweet, and not aggressive.
“I’ve got a little Yorkie that scared the daylights out of him [Harley],” Kaplan said.
Kaplan said when he first met the family, he was amazed at the connection between Michael and Harley.
“The dog already does something very special for Michael. He is the liaison between what Michael is feeling and everybody else,” Kaplan said.
Not only will Harley and the Grahams need to be trained, but also Michael’s teacher, teacher’s aide and therapists. He has adult siblings nearby and cousins who are protective of him. Canine Angels said the entire family is committed to his care.
The training will be extensive, and will likely take place a piece at a time.
“We can train Harley to assist Michael and his parents with many more tasks. He will have to become familiar with settings outside the home and adapt to public places like any other service dog,” said Canine Angels Service Dog communication manager Jan Igoe.
Michael attends Pee Dee Elementary, where his teachers read to him and use special computer programs to interact with him.
It would be very helpful for keeping Michael calm if Harley could accompany him to school, Cindy Graham said.
Joseph Graham is a veteran, which also qualifies him for help with a service dog through CASD, and his wife has knee, hip and back problems, and recently had to have Harley’s help after she fell. She was able to pull herself up off the floor using Harley’s strong and sturdy frame.
Kaplan said after hearing about their situation, he was moved to tears.
“I thought, could I ever do such a thing? I spend my life helping people, but this is a different level. Total self-sacrifice,” Kaplan said.
Donations for Harley’s training can be made at https://donatenow.networkforgood.org/CanineAngelsServiceDogs. Scroll down to where it says “Special Purpose”, and enter The Graham Family.