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Service dog helps Apollo owner sleep easier

| Monday, April 13, 2009

Bonnie Tesone's dog, Maggie, is cute, loveable and different, but not to be played with.

Maggie is a service do and Tesone hopes to dispel myths about what service dogs do and how to treat them.

"People don't realize that even though I'm not blind, Maggie is still working and is supposed to focus," she said. "Trying to pet her is distracting."

Maggie also elicits extra attention because she's not the average golden retriever -- her legs are the size of a terrier's. Her vets say she has dwarfism, but all that means to Tesone is that she is careful not to let Maggie injure her joints by running recklessly or too much.

"A lot of people say she doesn't get to live the life of a regular dog, but when she's out of her vest, she's a regular dog," she said. "If I was a dog, I'd want Maggie's life."

Maggie's main duty is to ensure Tesone, who has sleep apnea, makes it through the night. She sleeps with the aid of a breathing apparatus called a BiPAP. When secured over Tesone's face, the BiPAP quietly helps her breathe and safely fall into a deep sleep. If she shifts so much in her sleep that she interrupts the BiPAP's operation, Maggie picks up on the added noise, then nudges Tesone with her nose, which usually provokes her to fix the mask. Failing that, Maggie paws Tesone, then barks if she does not respond to pawing. All told, it happens about four times a month.

"Without a good night's sleep, I'm a zombie," she said. "When you have sleep apnea, you are literally fighting for air when you are asleep."

She has flown 18 times, sleeping on a seat next to Tesone, waking only when the plane touches down on the runway.

Tesone and her husband, Cliff, found Maggie at the New Kensington Animal Protectors shelter 4 1/2 years ago. Maggie, then 7 weeks old, had been found under the Tarentum Bridge, and her short legs were already evident.

In addition to her daily service to Tesone, she visits with hospice patients and nursing home residents.

Throughout her lifetime of training, Maggie has learned the distinction between playtime and business time.

"It's important she is well-behaved when she is out in public," she said. "She now knows just because she sees another dog, doesn't mean she has to play with it."

Tesone has faced some scrutiny from store managers skeptical about whether she, with no outward disability, can bring a dog with her.

"I tell them Maggie is a kind of equipment that helps me," she said. "They wouldn't ask someone to get out of a wheelchair."

Much of what Tesone does in regards to educating people is for the benefit of others who will someday use a service animal. She mentions a diabetic former student of hers whose mother hopes to acquire a service dog.

"I've been involved in some situations where a young child with a service dog wouldn't be in a position to fight for their rights to have that dog," she said. "Store managers can be authoritative and unaware of exactly what the Americans with Disabilities Act allows. I get upset when I think that animals are out there helping people and they aren't understood."

Maggie, to her credit, does what she is told, keeps to herself when at work, and saves her enthusiasm for when she can dig through her sizable toy box at home or visit pet stores.

When she is wearing that service vest, though, it's no time to pet her or throw her a frisbee.

Additional Information:

Bonnie Tesone

? Age: 54

? Hometown: Apollo

? Occupation: Nurse at the Westmoreland Intermediate Unit

? Family: Husband, Clifford

? Favorite thing about the Valley: 'You're far enough away from the city, but still close enough to enjoy the city life.'

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