Nadia is a sleek, black Labrador/golden retriever mix, trained to help Connor rise from the floor when he loses his balance. Oakley is a curly-haired goldendoodle who occasionally knocks Chase out of his walker in a rush to show and receive affection.
Both boys, twins diagnosed with cerebral palsy as toddlers, are now 7 years old and sometimes depend on the service dogs like extensions of their own limbs. But their partnership began as a gift from a Georgia charity, which introduced them to Nadia and Oakley, trained the family to care for the dogs and helped them land in a PBS documentary about the entire process.
The film, Through a Dog's Eyes, offers an in-depth look at Canine Assistants, a non-profit agency outside Atlanta that trains service dogs on a leafy ranch to help people with conditions, including epilepsy, cerebral palsy, quadriplegia and more. Narrated by actor Neil Patrick Harris, the documentary airs tonight and highlights the long road recipients travel to find a dog and embrace it in their lives.
After more than two years on a waiting list, two weeks of training and five months with their new family members, the only thing that still surprises the twins' mom, Lisa Panish, is that their long journey has led to a national TV spotlight.
"This whole thing has been quite surreal," said Panish, 36. "I never had a mike down my back or attached to my butt and neither have they. You never know what's going to come out of their mouths. And I'd never been around anything like this before."
The agency's dogs, trained over 18 months at a cost of more than $20,000 each, can open doors, turn off lights, predict epileptic seizures or just provide companionship. Canine Assistants, one of the largest service dog providers in America, gives away its charges to those with disabilities.
Alerted to Canine Assistants by her sons' longtime occupational therapist, Panish asked for one dog to help Chase, who has a more extreme form of the cerebral palsy that has weakened muscles in both boys' lower bodies. (Connor sometimes struggles to keep his balance; Chase can't walk without help.) But an agency staffer eventually suggested two dogs, saying, "What happens if you get a dog for Chase and it bonds with Connor?"
Eventually, the nonprofit called just as PBS was developing a documentary about Canine Assistants and its earnest, passionate founder, Jennifer Arnold.
Smitten with Chase and Connor's well-scrubbed good looks, the producers asked: Would you mind being a part of the film?
"I'm always open for a new experience," said the single mom, who pulled the boys out of school and took time off work to attend two-week training sessions in November.
"Cerebral palsy has a label sometimes … people see the glasses, the (leg) braces, the walker and they assume my children are delayed; they talk down to them," said Panish, whose blue eyes often shimmer with tears when talking about the boys' struggles. "For me, it was about exposing them to something new (while letting) people learn about my kids and their potential."
'They'll tell us'
In their home, lessons on caring for the dogs often take the form of a playful quiz, with Panish asking, "These aren't family dogs … when do they become family dogs?"
Connor responds, "As soon as the dogs say they want to retire."
"How do we know that?" his mother asks.
"They'll tell us."
It's Panish's way of preparing the boys for the inevitable: At some point, the dogs will decide on their own that they are done serving, refusing to answer commands or fulfill their regular duties. These lessons and more came during the training camp, where staffers said the dogs choose their human masters, though people often believe they're the ones in control.
Even now, Panish tries to avoid feeding or giving treats to the dogs — both still puppies at under 2 years old — for fear the animals will bond with her over the boys. That was a lesson learned the hard way, when the dog first selected for Connor, named Foxy, lost her focus on Connor and could never settle down, eventually replaced by Nadia before they left Georgia.
One day, Panish recalled, Connor asked, " 'Mom, do you think Foxy thinks I didn't love her?'
"I thought I had failed them both," she added, voice wavering.
Scheduled for major hip surgery in May that is expected to leave him in a partial body cast, Chase faces a tough recovery that Panish hopes Oakley can help him through. For her, the documentary is a big budget memento of a process that has changed their lives forever.
"I'm hoping this documentary makes people go, 'I get why you got these dogs now and why you can't stop talking about it.' ''
But even though it seems every family has its own unscripted TV show, one question kept buzzing in the back of Panish's mind as the project progressed:
How will we come across on TV?
When she learned a visiting journalist had a copy of Through a Dog's Eyes, Panish was ecstatic. PBS hadn't sent her a copy.
Crowded together on a plush living room couch, the boys, their mother and Panish's boyfriend, Rick Wilson, watched their lives unfold on the screen, as one of four recipient families profiled in the film.
Seeing herself tear up while describing why she fights so hard for her sons, Panish cried a little more, dabbing at her eyes with Chase's shirt. But those tears were soon forgotten as the boys recognized themselves handing treats to the dogs and recalling how tough it was for Chase to find a match. (Oakley was the sixth dog he saw out of a total of eight animals considered.)
As the final credits rolled across the screen, Chase and Connor were spent but excited — as if they had just watched the coolest home movie ever — while Panish was certain she had made the right move, both in adopting her new helpers and opening their lives to PBS' cameras.
"I see the documentary, and it reminds me of all the potential they have," she said. "As a foursome, they'll probably take on the world together."
Eric Deggans can be reached at (727) 893-8521 or [email protected]