Becky Berry has never been a dog person.
About three months ago, she, her husband Jim and their son Cooper brought Ross home from Canine Companions for Independence, and Ross has already changed their lives.
The almost 3-year-old yellow lab/golden cross pup is a skilled companion dog for Cooper, a Coastal student confined to a wheelchair because of Spinal Muscular Atrophy.
Described by his Mom as a “problem solver,” Cooper enjoys math and is thinking he may go into accounting.
That may take less than the four-year program he’s enrolled in because he took several college courses when he was still a Myrtle Beach High School student.
And since Ross joined the family in August, Cooper’s dependence on his parents has already lessened.
Ross is a companion dog right now as opposed to a service dog because all three of the Berrys handle him. A service dog only has one person who gives commands.
Becky Berry describes her 18-year-old son as shy.
And while he’s soft-spoken and reserved, he doesn’t take his eyes off his new dog, they are always together, and Cooper says he’s already depending on his parents less.
“He doesn’t have to always call for Mom,” Becky Berry says.
She retired from teaching to be available to Cooper, and Jim Berry is an athletics trainer and teacher at Conway High School.
In December 2018, Cooper’s older brother Carson passed away from the same disease that effects Cooper.
A month later, the family started the process of getting Ross, a process that started with 20 pages of paperwork.
Many telephone and in-person interviews later, the family spent eight hours a day for eight days in intensive training in Orlando, Florida.
Ross was one of five dogs that could have been a match for the Berrys. Ross passed muster, which included a psychological assessment of the family.
Founded in 1975, Canine Companions for Independence is a nonprofit that provides dogs free of charge.
As of 2018, more than 6,000 dogs were placed.
Last year, 397 more teams of pups and people graduated.
And so far in 2020, there have been 244 matches.
The family’s responsibility is Ross’s day-to-day care, which includes vet expenses, food, and the normal needs of a dog.
In this case, that also includes brushing the dog’s teeth every day and washing his ears twice a week.
Spinal Muscular Atrophy, or SMA, is basically miscommunication of signals between the spinal cord and muscles.
It keeps Cooper from doing some of the simple, everyday things Ross will do for him.
When Cooper drops something, even something as small as a pencil, Ross will pick it up.
Ross will open doors. Ross will turn lights on and off.
When he is trained to do so, Ross will also attend classes with Cooper at CCU.
“Ross could be trained to bowl if we wanted him to,” Jim Berry says.
“He’s amazing,” Cooper says with a smile. “He follows me around all day.”
In turn, Cooper takes Ross outside, he plays with him, he teaches him commands, and without a doubt, he loves him.
At some point in the next two years, Ross will transition from a skilled companion to a service dog, making Cooper entirely responsible for his training and his care.
When Ross retires from his work with Cooper when he’s 8 or 10 years old, the family will have the option of keeping him, even as they get another, younger dog to be Cooper’s companion.
Becky Berry is pleased that the family’s relationship with Canine Companions for Independence is not over.
“They stay with us. We go back in six months, then we go back in a year, and they’ll walk us through everything for the life of the dog.”
Ross has a forever home, Cooper is thrilled about his new level of independence, and Becky and Jim Berry are relieved.
“I wanted a companion and I knew it would help me down the road to have this dog,” Cooper says.
“We’re not always going to be around,” Jim Berry says.
“And now I’m a dog person,” his wife adds.