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Promise of a Service Dog Gives an Iowa City Girl Hope

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CEDAR RAPIDS- A search for a service dog to help their 12-year-old daughter has ended happily for an Iowa City family. But Mikaela Buhr will still have to wait at least another year to meet up with her four-legged helper and companion.

The Buhr family began applying for one of the specially-trained service dogs three years ago. But it takes up to two years to properly train a dog than can assist the disabled with everyday tasks. And it's about a $20,000 investment. So the Buhr family said without the corporate commitment they got on Thursday from the Milk-Bone dog treat company and Sam's Club, they'd still be waiting.

On Thursday at the Cedar Rapids Sam's Club, Mikaela met a black lab named "Rita" and the dog's trainer from Canine Assistants in Georgia. The pair came to Cedar Rapids to show the Iowa City 7th grader what she can expect when her dog is properly trained about a year from now.

Seeing eye dogs for the blind are the service animals familiar to most people. But Mikaela's mother, Aimee Buhr, said her daughter needs a service dog for other tasks most people take for granted—such as opening a door.

"The dog helps lean against the door so Mikaela doesn't have to rush through on crutches and potentially fall," Aimee Buhr said.

That's important because Mikaela has a host of health issues that make falls and broken bones much more likely. She suffers from Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, a genetic disorder, which causes problems with her joints and tissues. She also has bones much more brittle than the average person. Mikaela has broken a bone four times in just the last year and is often on crutches or in a cast.

A trained dog, like Rita, will give Mikaela more confidence in moving around when she's on crutches and can perform tasks like picking up objects, turning off lights or even hitting the "open" button on automatic doors. In fact, dogs from the Georgia training center can perform about 90 different commands on cue.

Mikaela said now her problem is just waiting until her dog is ready.

"It's like, you know, you're going to get something but you don't know when. It's hard to wait a long time," Mikaela said.

The Milk-Bone division of Del-Monte is partnering up with Sam's Clubs nationwide to sponsor 16 trained service dogs for the disabled over the next year. Mikaela is getting one of them.

Brandon Baker, marketing manager for the Cedar Rapids Sam's Club, said "just being able to host this thing (award event) is a great thing for our community."

Sometime late in 2012, Mikaela will spend two weeks at the Canine Assistants farm near Atlanta meeting a number of potential service dogs that have finished training. Trainers said they look for compatibility and the dogs available at that moment actually do the final choosing of new owners.

Even though the 7th grader is still waiting for a special dog of her own, now she's not waiting in vain.

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