Service dogs help students succeed


Claire Ozolek’s therapy dog, Lexi, provides her with psychiatric and mobile assistance. (Photo by Roger Tu | Staff Photographer)

By Nina Kneuer | For The Pitt News

Claire Ozolek’s best friend, Lexi, has big eyes and a hard-working disposition.

She also has a tail and four legs and works as Ozolek’s service dog.

“I mean it sounds cliche, but she is really my best friend,” Ozolek said.

Ozolek — a senior psychology major at Pitt — and Lexi have been inseparable for the last three years.

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Ozolek lives with mental health problems and spondyloarthritis — an inflammatory disease that affects both the joints and the places where the ligaments and tendons attach at the bone. She uses Lexi as a mobility and psychiatric service dog.

During her first year of college, Ozolek went through a rough cycle of anxiety, panic attacks and depression — and Lexi was the one who helped her through it.

When Lexi looked at her, Ozolek said she would think, “It’s going to be okay, I’ll get through it.”

Lexi is in tune with Ozolek’s physical and emotional needs — sensing pain, anxiety and mood changes.

“She is so sensitive, to the point where if I’m having pain in my knee, she knows, and she’ll point her face at my knee,” Ozolek said. “It’s incredible.”

Lexi was placed with Ozolek by an organization called Perfect Fit Canines. Founded by Susan Wagner and her husband Jim in 2009, the organization was a product of her desire to work with dogs and his wish to do something more for children with autism he worked with as a counselor and therapist specializing in autism.

As stated in Perfect Fit Canine’s website, the mission of the organization is to provide a perfectly trained service dog to accommodate the social, emotional and physical needs of people with disabilities.

According to Susan Wagner, even highly trained dogs can get distracted because of their friendly nature. She said it’s important not to taunt or pet the dogs as they work.

“You don’t want to pull that dog off-task,” she said. “Service dogs are not always perfect.”

Ozolek said she has encountered people who come up and pet her dog — despite Lexi’s vest saying, “Please don’t pet me, I’m working.”

“People are a little uneducated,” Ozolek said. “It’s important for people to know that not all disabilities are visible.”

Lexi is the only rescue dog that has gone through training with Perfect Fit Canines and come out as a service dog — normally Perfect Fit Canines receives their puppies from reliable breeders. She was rescued by the Wagners — who were originally going to simply find her a better home — until they found out she was very intelligent and would listen to commands.

Ozolek said she and Lexi have a special bond few people can understand. To her, Lexi is almost more than just a pet, a best friend or a service dog.

“The bond is just so strong that I feel like I’m incomplete if she’s not with me,” Ozolek said.

Ozolek said caring for Lexi has done more than just help her health — it’s made her become more responsible. Ozolek has to feed, play and walk Lexi while still attending classes full time.

“I thought, ‘If I’m not here, who’s going to take care of her?’” Ozolek said.

Lucas Leiby, a junior computer science major, said he feels similarly responsible for his service dog — Grenadine, a two-year-old yellow lab.

Lucas Leiby’s two-year-old lab, Grenadine, helps him find intersections, curbs, and stairs. (Photo by Roger Tu | Staff Photographer)

“It’s like having your best friend with you all the time,” Leiby said, even though the two have only been a team since two months ago.

Leiby has congenital glaucoma — a rare condition caused by incorrect development of the eye’s drainage system before birth. As a child he was able to read big letters, see colors and even hit a baseball. But along with his doctors and parents, he knew he would one day go completely blind. Around age 14 his sight was gone.

Leiby used a cane most of his life, until he looked into getting a service dog. Leiby became partners with Grenadine through the organization Guide Dogs for the Blind.

“People relate to a dog more than they do a big white stick,” Leiby said.

Leiby said there are positives and negatives to having a service dog, but the negatives aren’t always bad. Leiby said Grenadine helps him walk faster than he did with a cane, but she also gives him additional responsibilities. Despite the extra work, he said he doesn’t mind, since she helps him out so much.

“Her job is to make sure that I’m navigating safely and that I’m finding what I need to find … there’s a lot of trust with it,” Leiby said. “Fifth is kind of scary, with those bus lanes, it’s intimidating.”

Leiby said his job, in return, is to take care of Grenadine and give her a good lifestyle. He feeds her good food, plays with her and gives her time to rest so she can do her job well. Leiby still has to know the area he’s in, he said, but Grenadine knows when to stop Leiby from crossing a busy road.

“She is actually, as cheesy as it might sound, the difference between life and death,” Leiby said.

Leiby said Grenadine can find curbs, stairs, and intersections. He can teach her how to target certain items he needs to get to, such as a trashcan.

“She is my eyes. I mean literally, that pair of eyes right there are my eyes, when she’s on her harness,” Leiby said.