Organization decides to place service dogs around Columbia

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COLUMBIA - CHAMP Assistance Dogs (Canine Helpers Allow More Possibilities), located near St. Louis, has decided to place service dogs in a 50-mile radius of Columbia. CHAMP trains service dogs for people with disabilities and places them with clients. So far, it has not placed a dog in Columbia.

CHAMP is the parent organization of Columbia’s Puppies with Purpose.

With the help of University of Missouri students, Puppies with Purpose socializes puppies, potty breaks them, and gives them experience out in the community.

Dr. TerriAnn Tucker Warhover, the Puppies with Purpose program coordinator, said placements are generally in St. Louis, but because Puppies with Purpose is located in Columbia, CHAMP has decided to expand its service.

Dianne Peters, the director of education for CHAMP Assistance Dogs, said once dogs get close to a year and a half, they leave the Puppies with Purpose program and are trained at a women’s prison in Vandalia, Mo, north of St. Louis. She said inmates train the dogs for CHAMP clients.

Peters works with the clients. She said she would be responsible for driving back and forth from Columbia to meet with clients and teach them how to work with their service dog.

“I’d drive anywhere, not anywhere, but you know I think if you have a good placement it’s worth it,” Peters said.

Recently, Peters has been working with a family in Columbia, IL, right outside of St. Louis, to place a Puppies With Purpose dog named Bentley.

Natalie Fiorelli is a second grader who suffers from a brain injury. Her mom, Julie Fiorelli, describes her daughter as “a real miracle, a medically unexplained living human being.”

Julie said when Natalie was a baby in China, just days old, she was poisoned with carbon monoxide.

“She was left on the steps of a hospital in China for them to care for her weighing only 2lbs,” Julie said.

Julie said Natalie’s was hospitalized for the first 9 months of her life. She said the doctors thought she had pneumonia.

Natalie ended up in China’s foster care and was adopted by the Fiorelli family when she was one.

“I knew I wanted a child, but I didn’t know if I wanted a biological child,” Julie said.

She said her sister called her to ask if she would adopt a child from China along with her.

“That was my answer, God told me I had a baby in China,” Julie said.

She said when they got back to the U.S. after picking up Natalie they still did not know what was wrong with her. She said doctors did a MRI and were surprised because the damage was located at the center of her brain.

“It took about a year and her MRI went all around the world,” Julie said.

She said Cerebral Palsy damage is typically on the outside of the brain, but they categorize it in Cerebral Palsy because physically that is what it looks like.

“She is actually the only living case, that’s known, of a person that survived such an injury,” Julie said.

Natalie’s gross motor skills, such as walking and talking, are primarily affected. Julie said Natalie’s fine motor skills, such as holding a pencil, are only a tiny bit affected and that Natalie’s cognition is completely intact. Natalie can hold full conversations with people using a machine.

“She is a mainstream second grader with above average intelligence. That’s amazing because everything is in the center of your brain,” Julie said.

Julie said Natalie is starting to become more and more aware of her disabilities and she said having a service dog is going to be a great support to her emotionally as an unconditional companion.

“She tells everyone she is excited to be his momma,” Julie said.

Julie said Natalie tried to turn the family dog into her dog and it didn’t work out, but now she has her own dog.

“This is a dream come true for her,” Julie said.

Peters has been going to the Fiorelli house twice a week to help the family learn how to keep Bentley a working dog, and not just let him become a pet.

“Natalie has a very soft voice, so when I realized just how soft her voice was, that’s the way I started giving commands to Bentley from then on,” Peters said.

Peters said Natalie needs things delivered to her lap because she can’t really take them. She said Bentley helps with that and also helps support Natalie when she stands with help.

“As Natalie grows we’ll find more uses for him,” Peters said.

Peters has been watching Natalie interact with the dog and when asked how it has been she responded in tears “It’s wonderful.”

She said when someone has difficulty doing things, it can be isolating, but that dog is always there, that dog is your friend.

Julie said working with CHAMP has been a really rewarding time for her family.

“It has 500 percent exceeded my expectations. I didn’t expect it to be this great. I knew it was good for her, but I didn’t know it was going to be this great,” she said in tears.

When Natalie was asked if she was excited about Bentley finally coming to live with her she responded with a big smile on her face.

Julie said Bentley has become just another family member.

If you want to apply for a service dog, Peters said you can call the CHAMP office and speak with Dana Ruff, the client service coordinator. She said Dana would ask questions to see if the individual meets the criteria because CHAMP does not train dogs for the blind or sight impaired, hearing impaired, or for seizure alert.

More information about CHAMP can be found here.