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Bonnie joined Liam and our family in August of 2009, nearly six years ago now. We participated in the ADW Graduation ceremony in May of 2010, held that year before a near-sellout crowd at the new Santa Fe Community Convention Center. Liam snatched the microphone from my hand and brought down the house telling everyone how he got sick after Bonnie helped him through a procedure requiring general anesthesia at the Ear, Nose and Throat doctor. My version of the story, as Liam’s dad, was going to be slightly different!

Like any 15-year-old boy, Liam takes Bonnie completely for granted for the way that she grounds his day routinely. When it is Bonnie who gets sick or lame, Liam is like a different child. His love for her grips him deeply, and any hint of unusual behavior has him concerned for her wellness, and quite literally terrified that we should lose her. (I’m terrified, too.)

One of the most oft repeated memories of his earlier childhood was when she spent a night in the emergency room at the veterinary hospital. It was not a happy night for Liam, and we had to provide constant reassurance that she would be home in the morning; that she would be okay.

This is truly the heart of what Bonnie does for Liam: she is in his thoughts so very much of the time. He has his special voice that he reserves only for her, and I hear that voice when we are out riding our tandem bike together. I know he is speaking to her as he anticipates our return home. Having such a friend is deeply meaningful for a child, and a child like Liam especially.

It is not the only thing she does for him; wherever we go, Bonnie attracts attention: from children, from parents, from dog lovers, from Labrador retriever lovers and most importantly, from the curious. Many, many times I have had to answer the question of what Bonnie does for Liam, so the answer has become more and more clear. At first I felt like saying: “If you have to ask, you might not understand”! Then over time I realized that it isn’t really as obvious as all that. It is in a sense the very act of their asking that is the value: the reaching out, and not keeping us at arm’s length.

This is what families of special children really need: awareness, engagement, and understanding. In the past, the isolation of families with children like Liam had led to institutionalization. They were not to be seen, so that the rest of the family could proceed without being tainted.

Nowadays the movement towards inclusion has shifted the landscape, and these children are often celebrated. At least they are no longer so feared that they are shunned. In modern America the most commonplace ill is that they are benignly ignored, if only because there are limited channels for interaction. Having the presence of a beautiful, loving, sensitive animal to break the ice is just such a channel. We are forever grateful to Jill at ADW for convincing us that it could be available to us!