The handsome, dark-haired, dark-eyed fellow with the heart-shaped face and love-glazed eyes and the darling brown-haired athlete in the two-wheeler seat are glancing lovingly at each other as they sit beside the basketball court in the Community Campus gym.
As children dart about, bouncing, dropping and chasing balls all around the placid couple, the two aren’t bothered. The only thing they care about is each other. So when a child asks the girl if he can pet the black Lab in the blue vest at the wheelchair’s feet, he is cautioned not to. Wyatt is a working dog and here at the basketball court, on this day, he is learning to tend to Makenzie, in spite of distractions.
Wyatt, 1, Makenzie, 16—even an online dating service couldn’t have made a more perfect match. It’s a love match meant to last a lifetime.
But Makenzie Ellsworth wasn’t looking for love a year ago. Back then she was busy between basketball and rodeo events, her schoolwork and her friends.
A car accident in August 2006 near her dad’s home in Salmon changed her journey in an instant. When the car she was riding in stopped flipping, Makenzie’s legs stopped working, too.
Makenzie is a T3 paraplegic, which means she has full head and neck movement with normal muscle strength, normal shoulder movement and full use of her arms, wrists and fingers. The paralysis is entirely in her lower body and legs. Because of her athleticism, she has more independence than most. She can feed and tend to herself, shift from chair to chair or chair to bed, or, to the driver’s seat of a car when that time comes. >>>
It was during her lengthy hospital stay that she and her mother, Kelly Williams, found out about Hailey’s Positive Partner Assistance Dogs and Fran Jewell.
“I didn’t even know they had dogs for people in wheelchairs,” Makenzie recalls. “But when I saw Wyatt, I fell in love.”
It is because the feeling is mutual that the two have been able to make such progress together, explains Jewell, who worked with them weekly for months to train him to do the things that Makenzie needs. The training is transferable because Jewell uses a clicker training method. The dog responds to clicks that are most often followed by treats.
So far, Wyatt has learned to fetch items for Makenzie and turn the lights on and off at night. Makenzie has taught him to pull her bed covers up and down and plans on enlisting him to help her with her housework. “I want him to learn to vacuum,” she jokes.
But Wyatt also does important work as a liaison between Makenzie and the walking world. His presence softens the often daunting appearance of the wheelchair and enables Makenzie to educate people about disabilities, her accident and Positive Partner Assistance Dogs.
When they went to the mall together for the first time, her mother says, “People just looked at her differently. They weren’t as shy and didn’t look away.”
Jewell taught Makenzie to train Wyatt with a clicker. Makenzie’s plans for the future are big, and her body needs time to heal to catch up to the demands she will place on it. Working with Wyatt strengthens her confidence, her spirit, and her bones.
Jewell, Makenzie and Wyatt have been taking their teamwork (valued at about $35,000 all told) on the road as well, spreading the messages of perseverance and possibilities.
Williams is grateful for the dog.
“I want to do whatever I can to make Makenzie as self-reliant as she has always been,” her mother says. “She has been independent since the day she was born, and it is my job to maintain that.”
The young girl from Twin Falls expects to walk one day but, in the meantime, she is busy adapting her interests to her abilities.
“I’m going to ski and wakeboard, even ride again,” she says.
Wyatt’s help, be it physical or emotional, will just make the effort more fun, she says.
“Every teenager has problems,” she says. “Mine are just different."
For more information visit their website: www.ppad.org or call 208.578.1565.