It's almost time to get the mail, and the sandy-haired boy is excited. He loves the ritual, the importance of the job. He loves the way the mailman says, "Hi, Patrick," as he gives him the letters, bound with a rubber band to make them more manageable in his fragile, fumbling hands.
It's the first chilly day of the year, and his mom pulls yellow fleece over his head, wipes a bit of mashed-up banana from his chin, and brushes his hair down. The 14-year-old with the intellectual development of a toddler has the hair of a middle-aged man, parted on the side and combed neatly over his forehead. It's been that way since he was born, and it's there in the baby photos that line the wall-all smiles and dimples and blond waves, before it became clear that Patrick Maresh wasn't like other babies.
His face clean and jacket zipped, he's almost ready. There's only one thing missing.
"Hoo hoo!"he shouts, rocking back and forth on his heels in anticipation. There's a pitter-patter of feet from somewhere in the kitchen.
Then a jingle, like someone playing with a set of car keys. Patrick jumps up and down, clapping his hands and letting out a laugh.
From around the corner comes a golden retriever. She heads straight for Patrick, who kneels down and reaches out a bony hand. His coordination is shaky on a good day, and this isn't a particularly good day; he nearly pokes her in the eye. But she doesn't seem to mind. She puts her paws up on his knobby knees and leans in for a slobbery kiss.
Mary Lou is a service dog, and Patrick Maresh is her full-time job, a boy with a laundry list of disabilities and a deep ove of dogs. She came to the Maresh family's Westmont home in August from Canine Assistants, a Georgia-based organization that places specially trained service dogs with people with disabilities.
The months since have been intense, alternately frustrating and joyful and, his parents and specialists say, have sparked a dramatic change in Patrick.
"It's night and day," says Jan Maresh. "His ability to get through simple tasks is so much higher. He's calmer, he's more confident … and as silly as it sounds to say about someone who isn't toilet trained, he's more mature.
"And all because of a dog."
On the never-ending supply of forms Jan fills out for Patrick-medical waivers, therapy forms, special program applications, insurance forms-whenever one asks his primary disability, she just shakes her head. "I laugh a little," she says. "Where do I start?"
She usually starts with the most obvious: Patrick doesn't talk. He suffers from hypotonia, a lack of muscle development throughout his body. In addition to keeping him skinny and easily fatigued, it also prevented the delicate facial and throat muscles that control speech from developing normally as a toddler, so words never came. Broad cognitive disabilities and sensory-processing issues keep him functioning at the level of a 3- or 4-year-old.
Patrick understands most of what is said to him, and he uses an electronic talker to help with everyday conversation. There are buttons for the checkout line at Jewel, which his special education class visits on Thursdays, and buttons for "How are you?" and "My name is Patrick." And there's one for the dog: "Mary Lou, come" it says in a thick Southern accent, recorded by a Canine Assistants trainer before the Mareshes left Georgia.
But when Patrick wants his dog, he usually just calls out "hoo-hoooo." Then comes the trademark patter of paws, the jingle of collar, and around the corner, the face of the dog Patrick's parents prayed for.
The Mareshes started thinking about service dogs after they saw how Patrick responded to the therapy dogs that visited his special needs recreation programs. So they started dog-sitting for friends and neighbors and noticed small changes in Patrick: He smiled more and listened better when the dogs were around. The therapy dog coordinator recommended Canine Assistants, and nearly four years ago, they went on the waiting list.
The call came last spring: The group had a dog for Patrick. In August, the family traveled to Canine Assistants' Atlanta compound for a two-week boot camp, where they met Mary Lou, practiced the commands, and heard time and again about the tough road ahead. The wait had ended, but the journey was just beginning.
"I think some people think this dog is going to save them, that it's going to fix everything, and even though we knew most of Patrick's problems couldn't be 'fixed,' a small part of me got a little caught up in that," Maresh says.
The reality, she says, is somewhat different-something Canine Assistants was clear about from day one. "It's one day at a time, one small victory at a time," she says. "They told us it would be like that, and it is."
Mary Lou, like any dog, responds to treats, and practicing the commands is an important part of the bonding process. But for Patrick, that simple task is a Herculean feat: reach into pocket, grasp treat, pull treat out, lower arm, turn wrist, extend hand, stop in front of Mary Lou's face, and then wait for her to take it. He's getting better at it, but this particular morning, it's too much, and with an impatient grunt, he tosses the treat on the floor, where it rolls under a blue chintz armchair.
"When that happens, we pick it up and try again," says Kathy Serakaku, who has been Patrick's occupational therapist for seven years. Serakaku has integrated Mary Lou into their biweekly sessions and says she's seen a difference in his ability to focus.
"He's more engaged, more present," she says. "He can't be passive with the dog there-he's got to really jump in and react faster and more consistently. It's step by tiny step, but when you look back at the past few months, it's miles of difference."
Assistance dogs are specially trained to help people with disabilities be more mobile, independent and confident. Canine Assistants trains its dogs, mostly Labradors and golden retrievers like Mary Lou, with more than 40 commands, from the simple (coming, sitting, staying) to the complicated (turning lights on, getting the mail) to the just plain convenient ("better hurry" expedites bathroom breaks, which comes in handy on sub-zero Chicago mornings, Jan says).
Service dogs aren't new-guide dogs have been helping blind people since the 1920s, when thousands of World War I veterans returned home sightless-but the group of people who have been shown to benefit from them has grown in recent decades. In addition to helping the blind and the deaf, dogs are increasingly being placed with people who have epilepsy, autism and anxiety disorders. The federal government is exploring whether service dogs can help returning veterans with trauma-related psychiatric disorders.
"We've known for a long time that dogs can do amazing things for people," says Meghan Hopkins, the after-care coordinator at Canine Assistants. "But we're constantly learning what they're capable of, and we're helping people who might not have been considered for a dog before."
Canine Assistants prepares its dogs to help people with a wide range of disabilities, even though most don't need the whole package. Some use wheelchairs or walkers; their dogs must be strong retrievers. Others have motor coordination or balance problems; their dogs provide stability. Many have seizure disorders; while scientists aren't sure why, some dogs are able to alert their recipient before a seizure strikes, and all can go get help in an emergency.
Patrick wasn't an obvious candidate for a dog. He doesn't have seizures, and he's not in a wheelchair. While a dog can help him in small ways, he'll probably never live independently, and "realistically, there's a ceiling for how much he can improve," Jan says. He doesn't even need the confidence boost; many of Canine Assistants' recipients suffer from low self-esteem related to their disabilities, but Patrick is outgoing, even flirtatious, from the moment you meet him.
Instead, says his mom, he needed a companion, a friend, a source of stability. Life can be lonely for kids like Patrick; in a few years he will age out of special education programs, and while Jan says Patrick's sisters are great with him, they won't always be at home. Meredith, 20, is a sophomore at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Lanie, 16, is a sophomore in high school.
"A lot is expected of these dogs in terms of the physical tasks, but there's this whole other side," Hopkins says. "These dogs can be sort of a bridge," prodding their recipients to venture out of their comfort zones and drawing others in.
Where Patrick goes, Mary Lou goes. He takes her to school, to his life-skills training trips to the supermarket and the bank and to his water therapy classes, where he swims while Mary Lou, off-duty, naps poolside. This Halloween, Patrick went as the Grinch and Mary Lou, with a pair of headband antlers, went as Max.
"Patrick has a best friend now," Bill Maresh says. "We don't worry about that anymore."
The whole family
Mary Lou has been something of a rallying point for the Maresh family in their busy lives. Bill works odd shifts at the Mars factory in Chicago, Lanie is busy with debate and cheerleading, and Meredith, a theater major, juggles rehearsal schedules with her course load.
But Mary Lou has made small family moments possible again, Jan says. The Mareshes stopped going to church a few years ago when Patrick's meltdowns became too much to handle. Within a month of Mary Lou's arrival, they were back in the pew.
"Having a child with special needs, it's all about the little moments," Jan says. "And us being able to go to church as a family was one of them."
Just then, the mail truck pulls up to the curb and it's go time. Patrick claps, throws his head back and breaks out in a wide smile. Then it's out the door and down the drive, with Mary Lou never more than a step away.
See more of Liz's stories here.