To many people, dogs are more than pets; they are family. And, in some cases, they are lifelines.
For 10-year-old Clarke Ringelstein of Mooresville, a service dog would not only be his best friend and part of his family, but it would be a link to the outside world.
Clarke was born with a condition that doctors still cannot diagnose. He is classified as developmentally delayed with hypotonia or low muscle tone. Clarke is unable to walk on his own or talk.
But a service dog would cost $25,000, which Clarke's family cannot afford.
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This year, the Dublin Dog Foundation, on West Sugar Creek Road, will launch its third annual philanthropic campaign, called "Operation Clarke," on Saturday at Tyber Creek Pub.
Jason Watson, founder of DDF, contacted Presbyterian Hemby Children's Hospital in search of a child who could benefit from the use of a service dog and came across Clarke.
"I thought he would be the perfect recipient," said Watson. "It was important for me and for our board that this year we focus on someone right here in our backyard, in Charlotte so that we could meet the individual. There's a whole new level of urgency and personalization to all of our efforts."
This year's goal is to raise the money needed for Clarke to have a service dog.
All proceeds will go to paws4people, an organization that breeds puppies and transfers them to prisons where inmates are trained to teach the dogs skills needed to become service companions.
"Prisoners in there are trying to do their own rehabilitation and focus their own efforts in the training the dogs," said Watson. "It trains them on responsibility, being a little more selfless. ... It's a privilege. It's threefold, the dogs benefit, inmates get the benefit seeing their efforts (come to) fruition and knowing that, 'Hey, even though I screwed up in the past, I'm helping this 10-year-old child and doing something good.'"
For Watson, it has made all the difference in the world to meet Clarke and his family.
It means a lot to hear, first-hand what this means to them and potentially what this means for the future of their child, he said. A service dog will help Clarke retrieve objects, walk up and down stairs and alert others when Clarke needs something.
According to Watson, dogs are trained to learn specific sign-language motions.
"If Clarke needs water or needs his mommy and daddy, he can sign for it and (the dog will) get water or retrieve a parent," he said.
But most of all, Clarke's mother, Sandra, is concerned about the social aspect of his life.
Children can be pretty harsh, and dogs are a great way to knock down those barriers, said Watson.
Sandra Ringelstein notices that children around his age are not so quick to approach Clarke. She hopes a service dog can bridge the social gap.
"Paws4people understand the therapeutic benefits of the dog, and it's OK for people to come up and say 'hi' and want to pet the dog and talk to Clarke and approach us. ... They look for people to do that," she said.
The Ringelstein family plans to visit a prison in West Virginia next month to meet the puppies in training.
"What they are looking for is a dog that's going to pick Clarke and myself because I need to be the handler of the dog," said Ringelstein.
Several puppies will be in a room with Clarke to see which ones have a connection with him.
"You don't necessarily get the cute one or the one with the funny freckle, the dog kind of chooses the person," said Watson.
It's a long process that involves analyzing Clarke's needs and developing a training program that will suit him.
"He makes the sign for a dog. ... He knows a dog when he sees a dog," said Ringelstein. "I hope, as we keep talking to him about it and when he actually meets his dog, he's going to be very excited about it."
The hope is that Clarke will become as independent as he possibly can.