Leigh Dittman knew she’d need some help when she got to college.
After all, the Lutz resident lives life from her wheelchair.
She was born with a rare genetic disorder called osteogenesis imperfecta, or brittle bone disease.
The disease prevents her body from absorbing needed calcium levels due to a collagen deficiency.
Simply put, the condition makes her bones weaker than normal and more prone to fractures.
“It’s like a sponge,” Leigh said. “It doesn’t matter how much milk I drink; my body can only handle so much.”
The number of people affected with osteogenesis imperfecta in the United States is unknown.
Estimates range from as few as 20,000 and as many as 50,000, according to the Osteogenesis Foundation.
Throughout her school years leading to college, Leigh had a one-on-one aide who would help get her to and from class.
As she geared up for her freshman year at the University of Tampa, though, she wanted more independence.
Leigh put it this way: “With college, I’m training to be an adult, and I can’t be a successful adult if I’m relying on another adult.”
That’s where Nerf enters the picture.
The 3-year-old, black Labrador/golden retriever mix is a highly-trained service dog that responds to more than 40 commands.
He retrieves dropped items like pencils and water bottles for Leigh. He pulls her wheelchair around campus. He carries her backpack. He can even close doors, and turn light switches on and off.
In certain cases, Nerf doesn’t even need to be told what to do.
“He reads what I need,” said the freshman nursing student.
“At home, I’m notorious for dropping my socks when I put my clothes away, so at this point, I don’t even tell him to pick it up. He just sees it and he’s like, ‘I know what you need.’”
The bond between owner and dog goes beyond helping with everyday tasks.
Nerf is always there, at her side
Besides providing practical support, Nerf adds emotional support and companionship, too, when times are stressful, and when Leigh is feeling overwhelmed from her class load and final exams.
“He’ll curl up right next to me, and he’ll just stay there while I get work done; it’s just nice to reach over and have him sitting there,” she said.
Nerf came to Leigh by way of Canine Companions, a nonprofit organization that breeds, trains, and places assistance dogs for people with disabilities.
The organization provides dogs and related services free of charge.
It presently has more than 2,300 active graduate teams nationwide.
Fourteen of those teams — including Nerf and Leigh— are based in Hillsborough and Pasco counties.
Leigh came across Canine Companions a few years ago and decided to apply to the organization’s wait list.
Her family had never had a dog, let alone a pet of any kind.
Naturally, it took a bit of persuading to get the go-ahead from her parents for her to apply for the program. But, they eventually relented.
“I was like, ‘It’s a pet, but it’s a helpful pet,’” Leigh joked.
Since they were matched last summer, the two have been inseparable.
Leigh had to wait about three years after applying to be selected for a service dog.
Nerf and Leigh paired following a rigorous two-week training session at Canine Companions Southeast Regional Center in Orlando.
During training, Leigh learned all of Nerf’s commands and how to properly care for him.
She worked with several other dogs during the training stay, but Nerf proved to be the best to meet her unique needs.
Leigh recalls Nerf being goofy and energetic when they first met. At the same time, he was gentle and sweet, she said.
“I loved him from the beginning; he just fit,” Leigh said.
From the outset, even before training began, Canine Companions trainers had an inkling Nerf would be Leigh’s choice, said Jen Hanes, participant program manager at the Canine Companions Southeast Regional Center.
Hanes said Nerf had the ideal temperament and skills for someone with Leigh’s disability.
Nerf is calm, responsive and loves to work, yet isn’t so high energy that he requires more management on Leigh’s part, Hanes explained.
“There’s more than one dog that could work with Leigh, but we felt like Nerf was just the perfect match for her,” Hanes said.
The match has been life changing, Leigh said, noting it’s now impossible to imagine not having Nerf at her side.
Sometimes, the college student will leave Nerf at home to go to a concert or friend’s house. When she’s without him, she feels “very untethered” and “like part of me is missing.”
“It’s weird if don’t have him,” Leigh said. “I mean, it’s like as if I didn’t have my wheelchair; I don’t leave if I don’t have it.”
The bond they share goes both ways
Leigh depends on Nerf and Nerf depends on Leigh.
“He’s so well-trained and he can do so many things, but at the same time he is a pet. He does need to be cared for and loved, and made sure that he is healthy and things like that,” Leigh explained.
Nerf is a magnet for attention when the two are out and about.
People come up “all the time” to try to pet Nerf, as the two of them the University of Tampa campus, she said.
“I definitely had quite a few people in my classes last semester asking me questions,” Leigh said. “It can be a good conversation because it can be a good education for people that don’t have service animals.”
Meanwhile, Leigh doesn’t ask for special treatment from others.
“I never expect people to make accommodations or to treat me differently,” Leigh said. “I just may need to take the ramp instead of the stairs.”
She prides herself on being an achiever; poised to accomplish many of the same goals of able-bodied people.
At Gaither High School, Leigh graduated at the top of her senior class.
She played in the school’s Chamber Orchestra.
She was president of the American Sign Language Club.
She went to football games and enjoyed hanging out with friends.
“I was very active,” Leigh said. “I had that drive and the attitude of, ‘I’m going to do well, therefore I will do well.’”
She’s taken that same approach with her to college, with a goal of becoming a neonatal intensive care unit nurse.
With Nerf at her side, of course.
Published February 06, 2019