By Elizabeth Marie Himchak
Rancho Bernardo resident Connie Kennemer says her life has changed in unexpected ways since Nadine, a 2-year-old Labrador/golden retriever service dog, entered her life last fall.
Kennemer, who has limited mobility due to multiple sclerosis, is sharing her experiences because March is Multiple Sclerosis Awareness Month.
While she knew a service dog would help with retrieving dropped items and make her get out of the house and be more active since it needs exercise, Kennemer said she did not expect the emotional void Nadine would fill for her and her husband, Rex.
“We lost our only child eight years ago,” she said. “(Nadine) fills a companion gap.”
The Kennemers' son, Todd, committed suicide in 2005 at age 25. Soon after, they founded the Community Alliance for Healthy Minds, which has an annual conference in Poway to help those with mental illness and their families.
“(Nadine) has made our home different,” Kennemer said. “It’s like night and day. ... Emotionally it is such a radical change for me, in a positive direction. She’s like another person in the family. I cannot imagine Nadine not being in our home.”
Nadine was obtained for free through
, a national organization with an office in Oceanside. Kennemer said she started looking into getting a service dog a few years ago after seeing how a friend with MS was helped by a dog.
She went through the application process almost three years ago and once approved was told it could be at least two years before she was matched with a dog. That happened in late October 2013 when Kennemer went to a two-week live-in training program. After she and seven others were observed for a few days interacting with their potential dogs, trainers made the pairings.
“When they matched me to Nadine it was like a match made in heaven,” Kennemer said. “I had my eyes on her because she was the smallest dog and I’m pretty small. I did not want a dog to overpower me.”
Kennemer said learning commands was difficult. “I felt I would flunk out,” she said. “They gave us homework and quizzes. I felt like I was in college.”
Her confidence and abilities increased as they went on field trips to restaurants, stores and the mall — locations they would go on their own back home. “They were teaching us to respond in the same way we were asking the dogs to respond to us,” she said. “They praised us and cheered us on. It’s an amazing group.”
Kennemer added, “I’ve never worked as hard in my life. I was training the dog and the dog was training me. It’s a very rigorous program.”
While trained service dogs can be obtained through many organizations, Kennemer said Canine Companions is the only one she knows of that provides the dog for free. If purchased by her, the cost could have reached $50,000. She has bought dog insurance to cover unexpected medical issues while Nadine is her service dog. If the dog remains healthy, that could be at least 10 years.
She said Canine Companions owns Nadine and if Kennemer’s needs change due to her illness’ progression, additional training beyond a yearly refresher course is available.