Until very recently, whenever little Jude DeMatteis needed to have blood drawn, or to undergo a procedure or testing, he’d recoil in terror the moment he saw a hospital or doctor’s office, said his mom, Jasmine DeMatteis.
Now nearing 5 years old, Jude has been primarily living off a feeding tube since he was just 4 months. He suffers from Crohn’s disease, and was diagnosed more than a year ago with medical post-traumatic stress disorder.
For the past few weeks, however, Jude’s anxiety has seemed to decrease. What’s more, the side effects that result from having to take chemotherapy medications such as Imuran seem less intense.
The difference has been a dog.
As TV audiences throughout the region will see in a commercial that’s set to begin airing Monday, May 14, the SoCal Helpful Honda Dealers and Minnesota-based nonprofit Pawsitivity collaborated to present Jude and his family with a service dog, a handsome 2-year-old golden retriever named Grady.
Almost three weeks ago, hidden cameras were rolling in the meditation garden at La Cañada Presbyterian Church as Jude received a surprise introduction to Grady — which is short for “Gratitude,” a name suggested by Jude’s 7-year-old brother, Jack, who attends Paradise Canyon Elementary School with his twin sister, Jenna.
Anne Bierling, LCPC’s Parent Education director, has known the DeMatteis family since Jude was 18 months old. In that time, she and many of her colleagues at LCPC have been committed to helping.
At the 2015 LCPC Parent Education gala, for example, donors chipped in $20,000 to help cover the expense of a mitochondrial genetic test that spared Jude from another trauma-inducing surgery.
And then, for well more than a year, Bierling worked on finding a service dog for the DeMatteis family.
“I’m a therapist and I have some friends who are nationally acclaimed for post-traumatic stress disorder. I consulted with them and they all said, ‘No, Jude’s cognitions are too young to do typical therapies that they would do in typical post-traumatic stress disorder cases.’ And that’s when I concluded the service dog is the best way,” said Bierling, who was in talks with “the Ellen DeGeneres Show” for six months before she connected with the SoCal Helpful Honda team, whom she lauds for their consistent care throughout the process.
“I just had this vision of [dad] Jason coming home late at night and Grady on his lap, and it blessing the twins and blessing Jas and blessing Jude, who really needed a best friend,” Bierling added. “Because the research on how animals, how horses and dogs, reduce post-traumatic stress disorder is just really stunning and impressive.”
According to Pawsitivity, service dogs who are trained and certified to partner with PTSD patients have the ability to reassure, calm and reorient their handlers when they’re experiencing anxiety or mood swings.
The residual effects of such a service dog can include decreased hypersensitivity to triggers, fewer flashbacks, as well as improved concentration and sleep.
Jasmine DeMatteis described a recent day when Jude was vomiting as a result of his treatment: “And the dog was right next to him. He had his hand on the dog and he was throwing up and when he was done, he said, ‘Grady makes everything better.’ His little spirit was so soothed by that dog.”
Bierling said she had hoped that would be the result.
Jasmine said she wishes more children could also have such a helpful hound in their lives.
“Every kid who has special needs or who’s chronically ill or going through chemo should have a service dog,” Jasmine said. “It makes it so much better … and it takes some of the stress off the caregiver. You’re like, ‘OK, there’s something else aside from me who’s comforting them,’ and so you sleep a little better at night and your nervous system is a little less shot.”
But they’re expensive, she’s learned. Usually, they cost between $40,000 and $60,000, which usually means fundraising for families who are often already stretched thin. Bierling said she found out during the process that there are something like only three service dogs for every 200 requests.
“Maybe people will be prompted to support nonprofits that train service dogs, or maybe there will be people in the community who will decide to train service dogs,” Bierling said. “This community has such a love for animals, I could see that happening. And that’s the bottom line, what we need is for more people to train service dogs.”
Bierling said she never lost faith that the right dog would find the DeMatteises, even after one dog was called off when he developed an ear infection — no big deal unless the family he’s headed to has a immunosuppressed member.
“I’m a really strong Christian and I knew God knew there was a dog somewhere in the world and I was just praying he could help us find it,” Bierling said.
“And we got the perfect dog,” Jasmine DeMatteis said. “I want to carry flyers because people ask me about Grady all the time and I’m the first to say, ‘It’s Southern California Helpful Honda.’ And, every time I say that, people say, ‘That’s real? I thought it was fake. I thought those were actors.’ But it’s real!
“Without a doubt,” she added, “my next car will be a Honda.”