Nakoma wagged her tail and wrapped her teeth around the pen. She passed it to Thida Cornes, who handed it back to this reporter.
"Sorry if it has a little bit of spit on it now," said her 11-year-old daughter Kerensa.
Cornes, a member of the Mountain View Parks and Recreation Commission, has a rare movement disorder called myoclonic dystonia. Her new service dog, Nakoma, was given to her by Canine Companions for Independence.
Having a service dog has changed her life, she said.
Canine Companions provided her with her first service dog, Tovi, in 2008. Since then, Tovi has retired, and she's had Nakoma, a labrador-golden retriever mix, for three months.
Eight years ago, Cornes was seeking out a service dog for her son, Torin Fu, who was 2 years old and had unrelated special needs. She contacted Canine Companions, an organization dedicated to providing people with disabilities with free service dogs. She soon found out that her son was too young to apply for one. The minimum age is 5.
However, after speaking with a representative from Canine Companions, Cornes realized that she could benefit from having a service dog herself. Her struggle with the disorder made it difficult for her to walk and pick things up, so she applied for a dog.
"Being a mom, I was thinking about my son and not about what a dog would do for me. I just didn't realize how much a dog would change my life," Cornes said.
Before getting a service dog, Cornes said she would sprain her ankle about once a year, fall over weekly and occasionally even break her toes.
Cornes said she has suffered from myoclonic dystonia since birth. Dystonia causes muscles to contract and spasm involuntarily, and a myoclonus is an involuntary jerking of muscles. Her condition makes it hard for her to walk and pick things up. Originally, she thought that she just had weak ankles, but soon found out that this was not the case.
Now, Nakoma assists Cornes with proprioception, or the sense of the relative position of different parts of the body, and is able to assist her in walking. Nakoma stays only six inches away from Cornes when she walks, and keeps her from falling over like she used to when changing surfaces. Nakoma picks things up for her, opens and closes the refrigerator door and is being taught to press crosswalk buttons.
"Having an assistance dog has changed my life. I have a movement disorder and it's not always obvious what my needs are," Cornes said.
People have also become more aware that that she has a disability and are kinder to her after she received her service dog, Cornes said.
"People would stare at me and wonder if I was on drugs or something. Now that I have a dog, people are much more understanding," she said.
On top of being life-changing for Cornes, Nakoma also brings joy to her whole family. Nakoma takes her job very seriously and avoids other dogs when she knows she is working, but loves to play with Cornes' two children when she is off-duty.
"(Canine Companions) thought that the people might want more work-focused dogs, but they realized that people actually like (playing with the dogs). So, they taught the next generation how to play fetch. Now I can play fetch with Nakoma. It's really fun," Kerensa said.
"They're an amazing organization. I've been with them for seven years, and they're really very caring. They've really enabled me to figure out not only how I can use a dog but supported me as my needs have changed and my dogs have changed," Cornes said.
Canine Companions relies on individual donors, foundation grants and corporate giving for funding.
"The best part of working for Canine Companions is seeing the amazing ways that our dogs impact our graduates. Being a part of helping someone achieve greater independence is very special," said Angie Schacht, Canine Companions' Development Associate.
Canine Companions will be participating in Silicon Valley Gives, a 24-hour charity event taking place on May 6, and attendees can make donations to the organization.
For information on Canine Companions, go to www.cci.org or call (707) 577-1700.
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