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How a Special Dog Changed This Kat's Life

Posted on Aug 17, 2017

Kat Leibbrandt, a child life specialist and her service dog, Falco.

Kat Leibbrandt, CCLS, is a child life specialist for general pediatrics, focused on promoting positive coping and development during a patient’s hospitalization. As a child life specialist, her mission is to ensure that a child’s growth is not inhibited by being in the hospital and help the child establish skills for dealing with adversity. She works with other members of the team of specialists to assist with bedside manner and promote patient-centered care.

While her ability to positively impact patients during a hospital stay and commitment to patient-centered care help her excel as a child life specialist, there’s another important part of her that allows her do her job - her service dog, Falco.

Falco, a Belgian Malinois, spent the first 2½ years of his life training to be a bomb dog, before becoming what Leibbrandt jokingly calls a “bomb-school dropout.”

“They said he was really good at finding bombs, but he’d only want to work six out of the seven days a week,” Leibbrandt explains. “Then, on the last day, he’d want the day off, and they were like, ‘You’re not allowed to take days off.’ ”

Leibbrandt was diagnosed with a chronic illness as a college student, and after graduating and taking on a full-time position at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, her doctor advised her to look into getting a service dog. After learning of an adoptable dog located in Indiana, she took a flight to meet Falco, and within 30 minutes, decided to drive him back to Florida, where they both had a 12-week training course with the All-American Dog Training Academy.

“Falco was initially trained for mobility and balance, so if I’m falling, he knows how to brace the fall,” Leibbrandt explains. “On days when I walk with more of a limp, he can use the brace almost like a cane to keep me balanced.”

What she wasn’t sure of, though, was whether Falco would be able to alert her of the symptoms associated with her chronic illness. Her diagnosis doesn’t have a distinct smell that service dog trainers are able to teach with other conditions, like diabetes. Leibbrandt’s trainer encouraged her to continue building her relationship with Falco and monitor what new skills evolved from that relationship. Now, he is able to alert her 15 minutes before her symptoms set in.

“The first time he ever did it was in a patient room. He was acting super weird, and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, he’s being a bad dog,” Leibbrandt recalls. “I had to excuse myself, then, my symptoms set in not too long after. I was like, ‘Whoa, that’s weird, right - that timeline?’ ”

After a conversation with the trainer, she realized that Falco wasn’t being a bad dog at all. In fact, he was responding to the chemical change in her body and was worried, becoming more erratic.

“Since then, he does a better job of getting my attention. As opposed to walking around in circles, he’ll just put his paws on my lap when I start to smell differently,” Leibbrandt explains. “He usually gets a little weird with me until I go back to my office, take my medication and sit down for a bit.”

To Leibbrandt, Falco is more than just a family pet - she views him as an extension of herself. It makes sense, considering that he has given her a new sense of freedom that she didn’t have when she was diagnosed in 2012.

“From his behavior, I think he also found a home with me, because he’s willing to work seven days a week now,” Leibbrandt says. “He’s completely invested in me.”

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