Grace & Junco

As featured in the 4 Paws for Ability 2020 Annual Report

The 4 Paws community is a family. One of the clearest examples of this support and loyalty is the “returning client”—families whose beloved 4 Paws service dog has retired or passed away, so they return to train a new dog to continue their journey.

The D’Alberto family knows this situation well.

Mark and Bethany D’Alberto and their daughters, Gracie and Cecilia, connected with 4 Paws after seeing a 4 Paws dog with a coworker’s son. Gracie received Frankie in May 2011 and her parents marveled at the improvements in Gracie’s life due to this incredible dog.

“Gracie prefers women to men…even when it comes to her dad,” Bethany said. “When Frankie came along, Gracie began giving kisses to her dad. It was amazing.”

When Frankie turned 9 and started showing her age, the D’Albertos began to consider retiring her. Knowing Gracie would continue to benefit from being part of a service dog team, Bethany reached out to 4 Paws once again.

“We thought it would help to have both dogs in the house,” Bethany reasoned. “It would ease the transition for all of us, dogs included.”

In January 2020, Junco joined the D’Alberto household. She and Frankie got along well, and Junco easily shouldered the duties of service doghood to give Frankie her well-deserved rest. Frankie eased into retirement by becoming a family dog, and began making a connection with Gracie’s younger sister, Cecilia.

Bethany believes strongly in the bond between child and dog. Frankie ended up learning new tasks for Gracie, as Gracie developed seizures after Frankie’s placement. Frankie’s success reinforces the D’Albertos’ decision to get a service dog for Gracie. “Gracie has CTNNB-1 Syndrome, an extraordinarily rare condition. Gracie is one of maybe 200 people in the world who has it, and she is one of the oldest who has it. The doctors were in experimental mode trying to find the best treatment. We tried all the medical things, and we all agreed a service dog was the best solution.”

A great deal of the training at the 4 Paws facility happened, by necessity, without Gracie. Therefore, the family knew there would be a transition from “4 Paws reality” to the more practical, real-world task training and bonding. The COVID quarantine allowed Gracie and Junco a more intensive, longer bonding time than usual. “Being home with Junco for so long really put the exclamation point on their relationship,” Bethany said. “I am an essential worker; I saw so many negatives during 2020, but I was thankful our family grew closer during this time. And when school resumed in September, Gracie shows up looking like a rock star with this new service dog at her side who would do anything for her.”

Frankie paved the way for Junco to thrive as Gracie’s service dog.

“Junco is here to alert to seizures and migraines in Gracie. She is freaky good at it.” She also appreciates the personality match 4 Paws made between the two. “Junco is so regal, and almost half cat. She is not a snuggler, and that is exactly what Gracie needs.” Despite this personality, Junco knows what she needs to do. “Junco has to be next to her, all the time,” Bethany stresses.

Mark agrees. “Their bond is strong, and it happened fast.”

Because they know the difference a service dog can make in the life of someone with a disability, they share the 4 Paws story with everyone. Bethany shared a story about an encounter with a nurse practitioner she visited.

“As we were talking, she mentioned she had an autistic son, and looked into a service dog for him. She knew of 4 Paws, but told me, ‘They can’t help.’ I looked her in the eye and asked, ‘Have you ever had a situation where your son bolted and you couldn’t find him?’ When she said ‘Yes,’ I pointed out that there was no amount of money you can place on the life-saving tasks a service dog performs.

“I am a prideful person,” Bethany admitted. “I was that person that said, ‘I can’t ask my family and friends for money.’ But I quickly realized my pride was not worth my child’s life. Mark and I discussed this at length, and we agreed that we had to do what was best for Gracie.

“From this personal experience, I told my nurse practitioner, ‘Let this be your one time to ask for help.’ It is worth it, for your peace of mind.”