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German shepherd does double duty as service, therapy animal in Greensburg

| Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014, 10:57 p.m.
Steph Chambers | TRIB TOTAL MEDIA
Becky Pekar, who trains service dogs for autistic people like her 15-year-old son Alexander and also trains handlers, plays with her son's German Shepherd Bella, 4, in Youngwood's Christ United Methodist Church on Saturday, July 26, 2014. The church is where Pekar trains Bella, a certified service and therapy dog.
Steph Chambers | TRIB TOTAL MEDIA
Becky Pekar, who trains service dogs for autistic people like her 15-year-old son Alexander and also trains handlers, poses for a portrait with her son's German Shepherd Bella, 4, in Youngwood's Christ United Methodist Church on Saturday, July 26, 2014. The church is where Pekar trains Bella, a certified service and therapy dog.
Steph Chambers | TRIB TOTAL MEDIA
The nametag of Alexander Pekar, 15, dangles from the collar of his German Shepherd Bella, 4, in Youngwood's Christ United Methodist Church on Saturday, July 26, 2014. The church is where his mother Becky Pekar trains Bella, a certified service and therapy dog.

Not many dogs have professional credentials.

Becky Pekar's dog, Bella, certified twice for two types of service, is the exception, according to Pekar.

Pekar spent years as a nurse for Excela Health Westmoreland Hospital in Greensburg. She got involved with service dogs about five years ago, amid worries for her autistic son, Alex Pekar.

“We started seeing behavior that was concerning for us,” she said.

Many autistic children wander away from their caretakers without warning. It's called “bolting,” and it can happen at any time.

Pekar remembers a time she looked away for only a few moments while she was walking with Alex outside. When she looked back, he was gone, having dashed into a nearby cornfield. She followed, but Alex was lost amid the high stalks.

“It was the scariest 10 minutes of my life,” Pekar said.

Alex was soon found, but Pekar knew she needed help. That's when she began to research service dogs.

At first, her findings were discouraging. Service dogs can cost anywhere from $10,000 to $80,000.

Eventually, she found K9s for Kids, a Pittsburgh company that provides service dogs for autistic children. Families buy the dogs as puppies and work with the company to train them to become certified service dogs. These dogs cost $5,000, which includes a year of training.

When Pekar called, there were two puppies left in the latest litter. She and Alex went to the park in 2010 to meet them.

The two German shepherd puppies were rolling around on the grass, playing with each other. Alex had little interest in animals, but one of the dogs took an interest in him. She stopped playing and sat down at his feet.

“Somehow, some way, a certain puppy latches onto a child and won't leave the child,” said K9s for Kids owner Stephanie Feehan. “It's almost like the puppies know that this is their job, this is who they have to take care of.”

For Alex, that dog was Bella, and she kept following Alex around the park. She was the one.

“The dogs practically pick the kids, and I saw it happen with Bella,” Pekar said.

That was when the work began.

“We basically had a puppy. We were starting from scratch,” she said.

As Bella grew up, she learned to find Alex when he wandered off by playing hide and seek. She learned to walk with a specially designed harness, with a handle held by Alex and a leash held by his mother.

The family would go to training sessions once a week.

“We train them to train the dogs,” Feehan said.

Soon, Bella was certified as a service dog.

Bella and Alex would not be together for long. As Alex grew older, he would sometimes become aggressive, posing a risk to those closest to him when he became upset. His family could no longer take care of him on their own, and he moved to a residential treatment facility in Ohio last year. Bella still sleeps in his room every night.

Pekar said she hopes Alex, who is now 15, will be able to return to Pennsylvania soon, although it is likely he will always need to live under constant supervision. She continues to work with Bella to keep her skills sharp.

“We spent years getting her ready, if she does have to step back in as a full-time service dog for Alex,” Pekar said.

Meanwhile, Pekar and Bella have found another calling. It is very rare for a dog to be certified for both service work, which focuses on assisting a single person, and therapy work, during which dogs interact with many patients. Bella is the exception.

“Bella has a specific skill set for pediatric therapy,” Pekar said.

Now, the two of them visit hospitals together to help others in need. Bella can help comfort or encourage patients who are going through a scary medical procedure.

“Having the service dogs within the health care setting can be very soothing to patients who are anticipating a test or procedure and may be anxious about the unknown,” said Robin Jennings, spokeswoman for Excela Health. “The interaction with the dogs lightens the mood and is an unexpected surprise.”

In addition to working with Bella at Excela Health's hospitals, Pekar helps other families who want to own service dogs understand the process. She is not a trainer but uses her firsthand experience to help families find resources and understand the process.

She uses her skills as a nurse to own and operate Wineman Farms Outreach, a company that draws blood from special needs children in their homes so they do not have to make trips to a hospital.

She hopes someday to help establish a special-needs home in Westmoreland County to help children like Alex.

Jacob Tierney is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-836-6646 or jtierney@tribweb.com.

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