Nicole Guysi asked her daughter, Brooke, how old she is. Brooke picked up her iPad and tapped it a few times before it promptly responded, “Eight.”
Brooke Guysi has been diagnosed with Cohen syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes diminished muscle tone, intellectual disability, communication challenges and other symptoms. Brooke has also been given a second diagnosis of autism.
Despite her challenges, Brooke has grown up to become an independent child who is working toward breaking those barriers she has been given, Nicole said. However, Brooke needed some help to accomplish that.
“Brooke is pretty independent, but there’s things that, because of her condition, are very challenging for her,” Nicole said.
To give Brooke more support, she went through Canine Companions for Independence, a nonprofit organization that breeds, raises and trains assistance dogs for people with disabilities, where she eventually met Zara, a 2-year-old Labrador/golden retriever who became her skilled companion.
Brooke went through a two-week training course at Canine Companion’s Southwest Regional Center in California, where she was matched with Zara.
“He (the trainer) brought her over and immediately Zara was amazing,” Nicole said. “She initiated interaction with Brooke and she pet her for a minute and then went to play with her toys and, instead of turning her back on her, she just laid next to Brooke until she was ready again, and I think from that moment, the trainers knew that they were a match.”
Zara helps Brooke with multiple everyday tasks. Because of her condition, Brooke can have difficulty performing certain tasks such as opening a fridge. Zara helps her and gives her more independence without the assistance of her parents.
Another key aspect of their relationship is the emotional support that Zara provides for Brooke, especially since she has to constantly endure procedures.
“Because of her compromised immune system she has a lot of blood draws, and those are not fun things for her. Zara provides comfort during those times,” Nicole said.
Zara doesn’t just help Brooke with her everyday life, but also inspires her to learn more activities. Nicole said Brooke can have difficulties understanding why she must learn certain things like throwing a ball. Zara has helped with that lack of motivation.
“Since she has Zara, she now has motivation, so she’s actually throwing a ball and now she can interact with other kids,” Nicole said.
Zara even helps when Brooke is not feeling her best, and perhaps just needs a friend with which to spend time.
Nicole said, “She has a very high pain tolerance and she doesn’t always tell us when she’s not feeling well, but Zara will seek her out if she’s not acting 100% and come lay with her.”
Nicole said she doesn’t view Brooke as a kid who is disabled, but rather treats her as a child who happens to have more challenges. She spends every day trying to ensure Brooke keeps working toward her goals.
“We treat her like an 8-year-old girl, but we understand that she has some more challenges that other 8-year-old girls don’t have,” Nicole said. “Zara is one of those supports that gives her more independence so that she doesn’t have to depend so much on us.”
But the physical obstacles faced by Brooke are not the only challenges her condition brings, Nicole said. It can be difficult for Brooke to find her place in this world.
“A lot of the challenges are people’s perception of her,” Nicole said. “Overcoming those obstacles of trying to get people to understand that she is a contributing member of society and that she will grow up and get a job and contribute.”
Escaping those perceptions and integrating Brooke into a social circle that judges her based on who she is and her character is something Nicole really wants for Brooke.
“I would love for people to get to know Brooke for Brooke, and most people who do love her,” Nicole said.
Brooke has struggled with her physical condition throughout her life, and yet she has grown to be an independent child. Now that she has a companion, Brooke and Zara will continue to strive for progress as Brooke grows up and becomes a part of society.
“We had hopes for what we thought Brooke and her matched dog would look like, and Zara has exceeded any anticipation, expectation or hopes we had,” Nicole said. “Emotionally, she became the best companion for Brooke.”
For more information on Canine Companions for Independence, visit cci.org.