Helping 1 Teen Learn to Walk Again – 1 Paw at a Time
After 77 days in the hospital, 16-year-old Jack Lehman could tell you which furry member of the Doggie Brigade™, sponsored by Milk-Bone®, was striding down the hallway by the sound of their paws.
“Tank had this deliberate, methodical plodding,” said the Hudson teen. “Francis, he was still a puppy, a Lab mix, so he’d just be bounding. And Gracie, well she only has 3 legs so it was easy to tell when it was her.”
Jack looked forward to these daily doggie visits – even though it meant time for physical therapy, which often was both frustrating and painful as he learned to walk again.
Last year, Jack was admitted to the hospital after a sudden headache turned into a crippling illness that left him unable to walk.
He spent 35 of his 38 days in the pediatric ICU on a ventilator before he was well enough to begin the recovery process.
“Physical therapy can be bleak, just doing the same exercise over and over again. You can only motivate yourself so much,” said Jack, who’s now back to his regular schedule, including long days practicing with the marching band. “But when you’ve got a dog there urging you on, it keeps you going. It makes all the difference in the world.”
The Doggie Brigade currently has 72 dog teams – the most prominent breed is retrievers, making up 28 of the Brigade. The tallest canine is Dante, a Briard that stands 3 feet 4 inches, and the smallest is Molly, a Yorkiepoo that’s just 9 inches.
Akron Children’s Doggie Brigade program boasts over 70 dog teams – one of the largest of its kind in the country. These 4-legged (and sometimes 3-legged) volunteers have become an integral part of how the hospital treats children – helping with everything from physical therapy to offering comfort when children are scared or just need a loving friend by their side.
“Because we have so many dogs as part of our volunteer program, we’re able to have a dog available throughout most days during the regular work week,” said Whitney Romine, volunteer office coordinator and the Doggie Brigade adviser. “Staff can also make requests if they feel like a child would benefit from a certain type of dog.”
A dog like Gracie, for example.
“Gracie only has 3 legs, but she’s there encouraging them to keep going,” said Romine. “She’s really a role model for kids – someone they can connect to, someone who relates to them in a way no one else can, even other dogs.”
Gracie’s handler, Chris Witschey, is a long-time volunteer at Akron Children’s who’s come every day for the last 10 years with her brood of dogs, including Gracie (full name, Amazing Grace); Handsome, an Australian Shepherd-Rottweiler mix who’s deaf; Tank, who is blind; and the youngster of the bunch, Francis.
“Many of our volunteers have been with us for years,” said Romine, whose 2 dogs Karmie, a Maltese Poodle, and Mocha, a Poodle Shih Tzu, are part of the Doggie Brigade. “I’m extremely grateful for all of our volunteers. They’re the ones who make it possible for us to provide this service to patients. They’re really part of how we help kids heal here at Akron Children’s. They’re not just occasional visitors, they’re part of who we are.”
Jack Lehman Q&A
What makes you happy?
To me, there’s no greater joy than seeing a smile on another person’s face.
What would you like to be?
Something where I’m helping people, maybe a teacher.
If you could have a superpower, what would it be?
Flight. I think being able to fly would be very useful.
FYI – he plays the cymbals in his marching band.
Jack in the Media
An inspiration: Dogs with special needs help kids heal in physical therapy
When little bodies and spirits need to heal, a dog can do wonders – especially one that knows all about overcoming challenges
Hudson boy learns to walk again with help from therapy dogs with disabilities
From wheelchair to walker to cane, the dogs have been with Jack every step of the way.