NEW PORT RICHEY — The bonds children forge with pets are often deep, but the connection between 9-year-old Jennifer Petersen and her sidekick Fanny the poodle is nothing short of extraordinary.
Born prematurely at 5.5 pounds after an emergency Caesarean section, Jennifer lacked full supply of oxygen to her brain and spent six weeks in a newborn intensive care unit.
Doctors diagnosed cerebral palsy. She now must use a wheelchair and cannot speak.
She also suffers from epilepsy, which for years did not appear in the form of seizures. That changed in 2007, bringing about a terrifying time for Jennifer's parents, but later a blessing for the family — a pooch with super senses.
Her parents, Kimberly and Jon Petersen, discovered the epilepsy only when Jennifer had a major seizure, her eyes rolling back in her head and mucus in her sinuses and throat choking her.
He parents rushed her to the hospital.
The terrifying experience left the Petersens constantly on alert, not knowing when the next seizure would strike, or even when one started when it would end.
"It's really scary knowing you can't go in the other room or leave her side because you don't know when she is going to have a seizure," Kimberly said.
In her research trying to find help for her daughter, Kimberly came across a nonprofit called 4 Paws for Ability, an organization that matches service dogs with people with special needs.
She saw 4 Paws offered seizure assistance dogs, but also saw the price tag of $13,000 for training and other services needed in order to get a dog for Jennifer.
Enter Judy Kennedy and members of Holiday's VFW Post 10167, who found out about the Petersens' situation from Jon's grandfather, a member of the post.
Kennedy went into action and a donations drive brought in nearly $15,000. With the donations, Jennifer, Kimberly, and Jon went to 4 Paws in Ohio in search of a dog.
January marked the one-year anniversary since the outfit placed Fanny, a midsize white poodle with a shock of curls on her head, with Jennifer.
"It was a big change, it took some getting used to. But it's truly amazing how they find the perfect dog for your child's needs," said Kimberly.
The connection between Jennifer and Fanny was instant, with the dog, now 2, having two missions: sticking by her pal's side and letting Kimberly and Jon know when Jennifer is going to have a seizure.
Fanny can sense when Jennifer is entering into distress even as she is showing no outward signs her parents could detect. About 45 minutes ahead of a seizure, Fanny begins running circles around Jennifer's wheelchair, and frantically licking the girl, sometimes barking.
It is a crucial window of time for Kimberly and Jon, as they can often give Jennifer medicine to head off the seizure, and also prepare her for what is coming.
"It's such peace of mind. She needs to be held a certain way during a seizure, she needs medicine, so now we can prepare," Kimberly said. "I feel like I can go in the kitchen and know the dog is with her."
Jennifer and Fanny are inseparable. They sleep together at night, allowing Fanny to monitor for seizures while the parents sleep.
"Fanny is so good with her while she sleeps,'' Kimberly said. "Jennifer rolls all over her, puts her feet in the dog's face and she just sits there."
When Jennifer goes to school four times as week at Cotee River Elementary, Fanny watches her get on the bus. Like clockwork, 15 minutes before the bus returns with Jennifer, Fanny is in the window watching for her.
Today, the VFW will have a thank you celebration for all who donated to make Fanny a part of the Petersens' home.
"I was truly amazed at how many people helped. We got donations from everywhere," Kennedy said. "I would do it again for this precious child."
The Petersens also expressed gratitude for the donations, saying the charity of others greatly improved their lives.
"It's peace of mind. It's horrible to walk out and not know how long she has been having a seizure," said Jon. "Now we have time."