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Therapy dog gives Morris girl a sense of ownership

Madelynn Panti, 10, and her mother Suzanne Pridemore work on training their German shepherd service dog, Enzi, at their Morris home June 5. Madelynn has cerebral palsy and cortical vision impairment.
Madelynn Panti, 10, and her mother Suzanne Pridemore work on training their German shepherd service dog, Enzi, at their Morris home June 5. Madelynn has cerebral palsy and cortical vision impairment.

MORRIS – When Enzi, a 7-month-old German shepherd, performs well in her hour-long training sessions, she knows it.

Because it’s Madelynn Panti, the 10-year-old that Enzi will one day serve as service dog for, bestowing the treats, said Madelynn’s mother, Suzanne Pridemore, of Morris.

“Madelynn is learning how to interact with Enzi. It’s making her more outgoing,” Pridemore said. “She’s the one always saying, ‘Mom, we have to bring Enzi. I need her.’ For her to say that, is pretty exciting.”

Madelynn has cerebral palsy, cortical vision impairment (making her legally blind), developmental delays and will undergo a derotational hip osteotomy this summer to reposition her left leg, as it is pulling her hip out of its socket, Pridemore said. She also sees vision specialists in Wheaton, whom Pridemore hopes can improve Madelynn’s sight.

Caring for Madelynn is pure joy for Pridemore, who also is a bank teller supervisor, single mother of two children, part-time restaurant worker and student. Pridemore recently received her associate degree in supervision and management from Joliet Junior College, and is working toward her bachelor degree in accounting.

“My goal is to have just one job,” Pridemore said, “And to be home every night to put my kids to bed.”

That’s why Pridemore had been saving to buy a service dog and hire a private trainer after Enzi has learned her basic commands. Pridemore hopes that Enzi will encourage Madelynn, who has never walked, to walk.

“She takes a step if you hold her hands. She’ll walk all day with you,” Pridemore said. “Madelynn is very excited. When we ask her, ‘Who is going to help you walk?’ she says, ‘Enzi.’ ”

A cousin in Virginia got Pridemore thinking along the lines of service dogs. The cousin has a degenerative knee disorder and trained her own service dog. While researching breeders and prices online, Pridemore saw photos of 12-week-old Enzi, read the description and knew she had found Madelynn’s dog.

“It was everything we needed her to be,” Pridemore said. “She was smart, gentle, family-oriented and well-behaved. So I emailed the breeder and she emailed me back the price. It was double my price range. I said, ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’ ”

But the breeder emailed back, asking why Pridemore needed a service dog. Once the breeder learned about Madelynn, the breeder significantly dropped the price. On Feb. 13, Pridemore was on her way to get Madelynn her dog.

“It was so exciting, the longest hour and a half drive in my life,” Pridemore said.

Enzi joined a family that also included Madelynn’s brother, 4-year-old Koen Panti, and Skielerr (now deceased), a 17-year-old Dalmatian that had lived with Pridemore since Skielerr was just 6 weeks old. Enzi’s playful energy did not thrill Skielerr but was perfect for Madelynn.

“Enzi has really changed our house,” Pridemore said. “Madelynn never wanted anything to do with Skielerr – she never petted her – but Enzi started interacting with her right away. She loves Enzi very much. When we ask her whose puppy Enzi is, she says, ‘My puppy.’”

The experience is giving Madelynn a sense that something belongs to her, Pridemore said. At home, it’s easy for Koen to overtake any toy Madelynn drops. Besides, Pridemore added, Madelynn has little interest in toys and that also troubles Pridemore.

“I feel horrible when Madelynn just sits there in front of the TV, and she’s not doing anything,” Pridemore said.

So far, Enzi is working on “sit,” stay” and “lie down.” She will also learn “retrieval,” “balance” and “mobility.” So in addition to helping Madelynn walk, Enzi will pick up any toys Madelynn drops.

Enzi is taking her new role quite seriously. When Enzi is out in the world, she tones down her enthusiasm because Enzi understands she is working, a role she appears to love.

“At home she’s just a crazed dog,” Pridemore said, “But put her jacket on and she calms down and is ready to go.”

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