Companion changes life of special needs teen - East Valley Tribune: Opinion

Companion changes life of special needs teen

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Posted: Thursday, May 17, 2007 6:23 am

Denise Murrietta is a likable teenager with a quick smile. The Scottsdale girl enjoys horseback riding, watching birds, going to school and spending time with her dogs.

Since February, the Desert Mountain High School freshman has become almost inseparable from family canine No. 2, Wyka, an assistance dog.

Denise, 14, has brain damage suffered at birth that impairs her speech and comprehension, according to her mother, Jackie Murrietta. Jackie said the umbilical cord was wrapped around Denise’s neck and kept oxygen from her brain. Pre-term labor issues may have contributed to the damage, Jackie said.

“We heard about Canine Companions for Independence and thought getting Denise a dog to help her would be good,” Jackie said of the Santa Rosa, Calif., firm that places assistance dogs with no charge to families. “We went there for 10 days and took classes 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. We met Wyka and brought her home.”

Wyka, who joined 4-yearold poodle Buddy in the Murrietta household, is turning life around for the family. Denise and Wyka, a 4-year-old black lab, golden retriever mix, became fast friends and are bonding more and more with each passing day, according to Jackie.

“I see progress in Denise’s speech because she talks to Wyka a lot,” Jackie said. “Denise is enjoying herself. She takes Wyka everywhere. When we go out in public, it’s easier for the family because Wyka is there. Denise is busier now. She’s come forward a lot more. Everybody comes up to Denise to ask about Wyka. She likes the attention. She’s very proud of Wyka.”

Denise answered a simple “yes” with a big grin when asked if she enjoys the increased attention her new companion has brought. Her response to “Do you love Wyka?” and “Which dog do you love more?” elicited answers of “Yes” and “Both the same,” respectively, things Jackie admitted never having heard her daughter say.

“Wyka’s job is to be Denise’s companion,” Jackie said. “She’s geared toward children. Denise’s job is not to do commands, although she does sometimes. I’m the facilitator. Denise brushes and feeds Wyka and participates in all her care. Wyka has really helped. Denise has bonded with Wyka, but they have a long way to go. The dog understands what she’s here for. Denise is affectionate but can be rough when she plays. Wyka shows no aggressive tendencies at all.”

Among the things Wyka was taught by handlers was how to fetch, lay her head in someone’s lap, lay down, pick up an item, open and close doors, drawers, lights and refrigerators and, most important to Denise, play. Jackie said Denise doesn’t have as many friends around as she did when she was younger, so Wkya has become her best pal.

“We wanted an active dog,” said Jackie, who said the family takes Wyka to football scrimmages and baseball games at Arizona State University, to movies, to dinner and just about everywhere they go.

Denise wanted to make sure her visitor knew she gave Wyka, named by the breeder, a nickname of “Sweetie Pie.”

“That’s because she is a sweetie pie,” Denise said. “I love watching her jump off the diving board. She loves her toys. Buddy had a cow but she took it. It’s her favorite toy.”

Wyka seems entrenched in the Murrietta family.

“We relax more now that Denise has Wyka around,” Jackie said. “I see progress in Denise’s life. She’s getting better and better every day. I see people with disabled kids in a wheelchair and I think ‘Get a dog!’ They make a great difference.”

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