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A Woman and Her Dog

Preston - In the past nine years Danielle Ciccotti has grown more than just in age.

She's been through elementary and middle school and is now a sophomore at Norwich Free Academy. She's learned to love herself and is becoming a confident young woman.

She's had some stumbles along the way, but with help from her family, friends, and two special aid dogs Danielle has emerged more self-assured.

"God made me walk with a dog and I like walking with a dog. You know what? We don't walk, we strut," she said recently.

As an infant, Danielle was diagnosed with ataxia, a rare neurological disorder that affects balance, muscle coordination, and speech.

Working with service dogs has enabled her to improve her balance, coordination, and speech and made her more independent.

"She's a different girl because of him," Danielle's mother, Stephani Ciccotti, said as she watched Danielle and her new dog Rover walk around the lobby of the Mystic Education Center, where Danielle recently became a volunteer for a Groton Parks and Recreation Department program.

A lot has changed since Danielle entered her second-grade classroom at the former Poquetanuck School with her first aid dog Walker, an Australian shepherd/bearded collie mix.

In January 2002 it was unusual to have a service dog in the classroom. Many people did not know how to act around an aid dog. At the time a state official said it was so rare he'd never been asked for an opinion on whether it was educationally sound.

Now 15 years old, Danielle said her peers at NFA certainly notice Rover, a 2½-year-old caramel colored Golden Retriever, but not because he's a distraction in the classroom. She said students are more comfortable with her now, and she with them. Rover has been the ice breaker. More people say hello.

"And I say 'hi' back," Danielle said.

While Rover has made life infinitely better for Danielle, the transition between the two dogs was difficult.

The bond between a service dog and its owner is strong. The dogs are more than crutches, they are pets. They sleep together, eat together, and develop a mutual respect and love for each other.

When Walker retired from service two years ago, she stayed on as the family's pet, but that left Danielle without her four-legged support. It would have been too difficult to bring another service dog into the house with Walker still there, Stephani said. The new dog would not have been able to bond with Danielle the way it should because Walker would not have relinquished her spot next to Danielle's hip.

When Walker died in August at age 12, Danielle was devastated. The family had been searching for a year for another dog so that when the time came they were prepared.

That moment came in November when Danielle and Stephani went to a special school in New York to meet Rover, a dog the family purchased through the East Coast Assistance Dogs association.

Danielle wasn't sure she was ready.

The two-week boot camp Danielle went through with disabled war veterans and their service dogs was intense. One night, while working in the training room, Rover barked at Danielle. She was frustrated, he was frustrated, and the two were at a stalemate, her mother said. Danielle began to cry.

That's when a veteran named Ace came into the room, Danielle said. She said he understood her frustration and was trying to talk to her when Rover swiftly got between them. The dog started to force Ace to back away from Danielle.

"Rover thought he had hurt me. He thought I was crying because of Ace," she said recently, smiling at the memory.

That was the turning point for Danielle and Rover. Last week, the pair worked well together. They practiced commands, such as turning on and off lights, with some success. There are skills they still need to work on; and while she may not recall them, Danielle had similar frustrating moments with Walker.

At one point she told her parents that Walker made her life "horrible." Last week, as she sat in the lobby of the Mystic Education Center's pool with Rover sleeping at her feet, Walker's ashes were kept lovingly in a platinum bone pendent hanging from a silver chain around her neck.

Danielle said there is a spiritual connection between the two dogs. Walker entered her life on April 13, 2001; Rover was born on April 13, 2007.

"It is a sign," she said, smiling as she massaged Rover's soft nose that was resting on her legs.

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