Freedom on four legs

Tuesday, November 2, 2004

Victoria Lowes would do just about anything to avoid life in a wheelchair.

It's not been an easy goal for the Cape Girardeau 13-year-old, who has battled muscular dystrophy since birth. But with the help of a castoff canine, Victoria has finally found freedom and Central Junior High School has found a new mascot.

The Lowes family didn't go to the Humane Society of Southeast Missouri last year to adopt the brown-eyed, mixed-breed puppy named Sami. They had their eye on another dog, but it was Sami's calm, loving demeanor that changed their minds.

After a year and a half of practicing, Sami is now a regular at the junior high, though her official training as an assist dog won't be complete until the end of this school year. For Victoria, Sami represents a chance for normalcy and independence.

"People in wheelchairs get made fun of, and it's harder to make friends in a wheelchair," Victoria said. "Besides, I am able to walk."

Victoria currently uses braces, which allow her to walk slowly but make tasks such as climbing stairs difficult.

The idea to adopt a dog for Victoria came from a conference in St. Louis, at which Edie and David Lowes learned dogs could be trained to help their daughter walk, retrieve objects and even undress. Ideally, they would have chosen a dog already trained for special assistance, but that turned out to be difficult.

"Dogs don't fall under our insurance policy. There were no trained dogs in this area or, if they were trained, they were very expensive," David Lowes said.

So they ended up at the Humane Society, searching for just the right animal for Victoria. A year and a half ago, they brought Sami home and work began with a local trainer who taught the dog basic obedience skills.

The specialized training required for an official assist dog is ongoing with a Wichita, Kan., trainer, who works with the Lowes and Sami through the Internet and videotapes mailed back and forth.

In late September, Sami made her first trip to Central Junior High School, where Victoria is an eighth-grader. Training at the school began with either Edie or David Lowes walking the dog down hallways as classes changed between bells.

During the morning hours, Victoria is homeschooled by her mother, but she takes three classes every day at the junior high and Sami is often able to accompany her. Eventually, Victoria will be able to use Sami to walk, instead of the braces she currently has. To do that, Sami has to wear a special harness with a handle on top that Victoria can grasp for support.

The problem is, Sami isn't as big as most assist dogs, so the Lowes couldn't find a harness that was tall enough for Victoria. Having one custom made was too expensive, so David Lowes is currently constructing a harness frame in his garage.

Victoria trains with Sami three times a day, hoping to have her ready to go full time by next year, when they'll both move on to the much larger Central High School.

"It's a lot of walking, but it's good for me because it helps keep my strength up so I can keep walking," Victoria said.

The Lowes say their daughter's success is due in large part to the Cape Girardeau School District. Officials there allowed Victoria to return to school part time after a surgery in fifth grade kept her legs in casts for a year and forced her to relearn to walk.

"The other students know they have to wait on her. They don't look at her as if she has a disability, she's just Victoria to them," Edie Lowes said.

cclark@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 128

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