Canine companion helps foster independence
Dogs often are considered members of the family.
That's especially true for members of the Vasiloff family, as their Labrador retriever-golden retriever mix provides not only companionship but greater independence for Jake Vasiloff, 13, a seventh-grade student at Hilliard Heritage Middle School.
The Vasiloff family welcomed Kale II, a 2-year-old assistance dog from the Delaware-based nonprofit organization Canine Companions for Independence, in August to help Jake, who was born with a rare genetic disorder known as Prader-Willi syndrome.
Named for the physicians who identified it 1956, the syndrome is caused by a missing gene on part of chromosome 15.
The condition occurs in about one in every 15,000 births, said Jake's mother, Gina Vasiloff, and the most common symptom is reduced muscle tone, causing those with the condition to have difficulty walking and grasping.
The syndrome also has associated cognitive and behavioral problems, she said, as well as a chronic sense of hunger that can lead to health problems such as obesity.
Receiving Kale took more than a year and Vasiloff was not sure if her son would qualify, as his needs, she said, are not as great as many who have assistance dogs. Families receive the dogs free of charge, but Vasiloff said the cost to raise and train the animal is about $45,000.
Kale is named Kale II because the breeding company names the dogs alphabetically as each is put into service, and the name Kale was used a second time.
Vasiloff applied for an assistance dog when Jake was in fifth grade. The following year, she and Jake completed an orientation class.
They expected to wait another year but received an assistance dog much sooner than expected -- the result of another match that was not successful.
"They called and asked if we could start the next day," Vasiloff said.
Both Jake and his mother were required to complete an intense two-week full academy in which an assistance dog and its owner are matched.
The assistance dog is trained to follow commands from two people: the recipient and a facilitator. In this instance, Jake is the recipient and his mother the facilitator.
The dog is trained to respond to its recipient and, if necessary, to a follow-up command from the facilitator, who performs a "correction" if needed, Vasiloff said.
Fewer than half of assistance dogs, which are selected for their temperament, health and other factors, ultimately are matched with recipients. All assistance dogs begin their service life at about the age of 2, and they typically serve eight to 10 years.
Kale is trained to respond to about 40 commands, but Jake uses only a fraction of those, most often using "get" and "give" to retrieve items, and "push" or "tug" to open or close doors and remove articles of clothing.
It is expected after he is an adult that Jake and Kale can live independently and Kale will follow Jake's commands.
But for now, Jake, his mother and Kale work together.
Kale does not accompany Jake to Heritage Middle School, but he goes most other places, including the library, restaurants, the mall and other social settings.
"I think Kale helps Jake have more confidence with making friends, too," Vasiloff said.
Besides helping Jake with picking up dropped items and pulling off his socks, Kale helps in other ways that are not as obvious.
"Kale wakes up Jake every morning, then wakes up (his sister) Jennifer (a sophomore at Hilliard Darby High School)," Vasiloff said.
Kale helps Jake sleep, especially during thunderstorms.
"Jake gets some anxiety during thunderstorms and Kale gets in the bed with him on those nights," Vasiloff said.
Kale also helps Jake with occasional anxiety issues and "meltdowns."
Behavioral issues also are a symptom of PWS, but Jake's meltdowns have been less frequent recently, his mother said.
"Kale helps me a lot," said Jake, who has "taught" Kale to give him kisses. Assistance dogs typically are trained not to lick faces.
"He makes my life a lot easier," Jake said.
An avid reader, Jake enjoys his classes at school, particularly science classes, and said he wants to be a chemist or a herpetologist, a zoologist that specializes in reptiles, amphibians, crocodilians and turtles.
He also enjoys music and plays drums in the Heritage marching band and has eclectic taste in music, naming AC/DC and Rascal Flatts as favorites.
Ice cream and pizza are among his favorite foods.
Jake is the son of Gina Vasiloff of Dublin and Jeff Vasiloff of Hilliard.