When Bella met George, something wonderful happened. Not long ago, the 11-year-old with a rare disorder was clinging to crutches, but now she’s walking with the help of the Great Dane, a 2-year-old service dog who has become her best friend and constant companion.
She’s made so much progress, the family was recently astonished to see her dash and frolic in the grass as her big furry protector looked on.
“I don’t remember the last time I watched my child run through the yard,” Rachel Burton, Bella’s mom, told TODAY. “Seeing her just run was amazing to us.”
The Burtons, who live in Woburn, Massachusetts, will travel to Orlando, Florida, next month where George will be honored by the American Kennel Club for his impact on the family.
It’s been a long road for Bella and her loved ones.
When the girl was 2, her parents noticed she wasn’t keeping up on her growth curve. The problem stumped her doctor, who suggested genetic testing to find out what was wrong. The tests revealed she had Morquio syndrome, a progressive disorder in which the body doesn’t produce enough of a key enzyme. That leads to a buildup of sugar molecules, which can cause problems with bone development and growth.
It’s estimated the syndrome occurs in only 1 of every 200,000 births.
In her young life so far, Bella has had nine major surgeries, including reconstruction of her hips and feet. She’s also had problems with mobility, getting around on crutches but using them more to swing her legs rather than walking on them. Her parents worried she was losing muscle strength in her lower body, relying on her upper body instead to move.
That all changed when she met George.
The Burtons weren’t looking for a service animal, but about two years ago, they heard about the Service Dog Project in Ipswich, Massachusetts, which trains and donates Great Danes for people with balance and mobility issues.
With its impressive height and heft, a good temperament and easygoing lifestyle, the breed is perfect for the job, the non-profit explains.
Most dogs are paired with adults, but when the family began visiting, it was clear the girl was ready for a canine companion.
“Once we saw Bella being around those dogs, how she was always in such a great mood and she loved going there, we thought, ‘What are we waiting for?’” Burton recalled.
“When she was visiting George and he didn’t want her to leave his kennel, they were like, let’s try them.”
The Burtons brought him home just for the weekend over several weeks at first, then permanently added George to the family in January. They’re grateful the fully trained animal was donated by the Service Dog Project.
Bella weighs 44 pounds and stands 43 inches tall. Soon, she put away the crutches and began to walk, with the help of her furry 131-pound friend. With her height, the dog’s back is right by her armpit, providing lots of stability.
“She leans on him for support like she would if she used one crutch. But it’s much more exciting when it’s a dog than a crutch,” Burton said.
George now goes everywhere Bella goes. He spends the day with her at school, where he walks her from class to class and patiently lies in a bed right next to her desk. He doesn’t bark or demand to go outside, Burton said. The other kids are used to his presence and know they can’t pet him because he’s there to work.
George is also a comfort during Bella’s medical appointments, including a weekly six-hour infusion of a medicine that gives her more energy.
“At first, he did not like it when she would get her IV put in. He would want to get up and protect her. But then he realized it had to be done,” Burton said.
At night, he climbs into bed with the little girl, often sleeping beside her.
Bella’s prognosis is hard to predict, her mom said. Some people with Morquio syndrome have lived to 20, others are in their 40s and still fine. Bella continues to see specialists who monitor her for issues related to the disorder.
Each time, George is there.
“He’s totally a member of the family now,” Burton said.