For Nehemiah Dandy, a ‘Dog Day’ is a Good Day

Betsy Shields with grandson Nehemiah Dandy, 7, and therapy dog Zeus. Last year The Voice publicized their campaign to raise funds to purchase Zeus. Less than a year later, generous donors made their dreams come true. See story on page 10.

Nehemiah Dandy and his Labradoodle Zeus.

At just 7 years old, Nehemiah Dandy has already endured a world of problems. And he will for the rest of his life, due to severe developmental delays and extensive medical problems. But Nehemiah’s Christmas this year will be a little bit brighter, because he was recently granted a long-held wish. After more than a year of fundraising, paperwork and the support of many friends in the community, Nehemiah at last has an attentive, loyal furry best friend by his side – his new, specially trained therapy dog, an 18-month-old black Labradoodle named Zeus.

Nehemiah has Angelman Syndrome, a genetic disease that causes development problems, intellectual disability, speech impairment, poor muscle coordination and behavioral issues. While his life expectancy is normal, he will always be a child mentally, probably not progressing beyond the age of 8 or so.

Nehemiah’s primary caregiver is his grandmother, Betsy Shields, and for years she’s devoted every moment keeping him safe. Children with Angelman Syndrome function on very little sleep, often needing medications to sleep just four hours each night. He’s awake all hours of the night and day, and without constant supervision would wander aimlessly and dangerously about the house.

Which means Shields, too, gets little sleep. On disability herself after undergoing multiple back surgeries, Shields admits she has trouble keeping up with her grandson. She rarely has a moment to sit down and rest, much less spend time on anything else.

“And away from the house, it’s even scarier,” Shields said. “He darts off this way and that and is gone in an instant. I live in fear of him wandering off and not finding him.”

Zeus is a ‘tether dog,’ trained specifically to help children like Nehemiah who require near-constant supervision. Having him in their life has brought much relief to Shields.

Shields said that when she first learned about tether dogs, she was hopeful about the possibility and did a lot of research.

“Eventually,” she said, “we found an organization called Service Dogs for Independence, in Tucson, Ariz. They had a trained Labradoodle that seemed like a perfect fit for Nehemiah.”

Although tether dogs can cost as much as $30,000, this organization provides dogs at a much lower cost in cases of financial need. But even $8,000 was still far beyond what the family was able to afford.

Shields, along with family and friends, put the word out. A story ran in The Voice last December, which was then picked up by an Upstate paper. That’s where Kathy Young, a special education teacher, learned of Nehemiah’s situation and took it upon herself to arrange a series of fundraisers.

“It snowballed from there,” said Mary Tindal, Nehemiah’s great-grandmother, “and before long we had the money to buy Zeus.”

On Sept. 2, Zeus and his trainer flew from Tucson to Charlotte, then drove to Ridgeway where Shields and Nehemiah live in an apartment.

“Zeus brings Nehemiah a lot of comfort,” Shields said. “He used to look to me for everything. But now, more and more he looks to Zeus. Zeus occupies a lot of Nehemiah’s attention and time, so I have a bit of freedom to do other things. Not a lot,” she said with a laugh, “but more than I used to have.”

When Zeus is looking after Nehemiah, both of them wear special harnesses that connect with a tether.

“When we go for a walk, he and Zeus are tethered together,” Shields said. “I still have a leash on Zeus, but I don’t have to hold on to Nehemiah all the time, which he likes!”

Nehemiah still wakes frequently in the night, but settles back down more easily with Zeus asleep next to him. Shields said he treats Zeus’ ear as a pacifier, holding it against his face as he goes to sleep.

Shields said that when they leave for Fairfield Elementary each morning, Nehemiah kisses Zeus goodbye. “And when he gets home, he goes right to Zeus, hugging and kissing him,” she said with a smile. “Nehemiah and Zeus love to go places together. We make a weekly trip to Pet Smart to help Zeus maintain his socialness. We also go to the fenced dog park at Sesquicentennial Park off Two Notch Road where they can both run and play without a tether.”

“Nehemiah still has his meltdowns, but they have become fewer now with Zeus in his life,” Shields said. “Their relationship has helped Nehemiah in so many ways, developmentally and emotionally. A child with Nehemiah’s condition is never going to have another child as a best friend that he can play with or feel close to,” she said smoothing her hand over Zeus’ head. “Now he has one who not only plays with him, but looks after him and loves him. He finally has Zeus.”