It was the most meaningful gift Gracie Key has ever received. In 2019, her former teacher gave her a German Shepherd puppy named Saber. Saber became a “Life-Saber” for this Missouri teenager.
Saber was not an ordinary pet. He was a service dog, trained to support individuals with disabilities. Gracie’s disability is essential tremor (ET).
She was just a baby when ET began to show itself. Her mom, Danea, noticed Gracie was behind in developmental milestones like sitting up, crawling and feeding herself. As she grew, she struggled with her fine motor skills.
“In kindergarten they had nap time. And Gracie’s teacher called to say Gracie was waking up from her nap really shaky,” Danea recalled. “It was part of the tremor that her teacher didn’t understand.”
Essential tremor impacts people of all ages, and Gracie is proof of this. Though it’s more closely associated with older adults, an estimated five percent of ET patients will present with symptoms before adulthood. ET is also highly hereditary. In Gracie’s family, it runs on both her mother’s and father’s side.
Once Gracie received her ET diagnosis, she was prescribed medication to help her manage her symptoms. It gave her some relief, but also made her tired and sluggish at times. As with many people with ET, Gracie struggled with everyday tasks like dressing herself and brushing her teeth. She was self-conscious and isolated herself from classmates because she felt like she didn’t fit in. This led to anxiety and depression.
One day, Gracie’s teacher brought her son’s service dog to school. She noticed the immediate connection Gracie made with the dog. That’s when she decided to gift her one.
Studies have found that animals decrease levels of cortisol (a stress-related hormone) and lower blood pressure in humans, while reducing loneliness and boosting mood. A long-term study by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in partnership with the Mars Corporation’s Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition looked at the health benefits of owning an animal. For children, studies showed improved social functioning and more engagement with their peers as a result.
For Gracie, the impact was increased confidence, and independence, according to her mom.
“She has purpose to get up early and she is mastering the day full of confidence,” Danea said.
Gracie began taking her service dog to school with her when she was in the 10th grade and now, at age 17, it’s normal for her and for her classmates. When Saber needed to be retired from his duty as a service dog, Gracie got a second service dog, a chocolate Labrador named Amos. Amos has taken over the role and is her constant companion.
In March 2020, Gracie’s parents, Joel and Danea, started The Saber Life Foundation to pay it forward for others with disabilities. The organization’s goal is to educate the public about the importance of service dogs and to connect dogs and people, one disability at a time.
In general, service dog training costs a minimum of $18,500. Saber Life Foundation is helping to provide to all that are accepted into the project, a trained dog for a fraction of the cost.
“With everything we have learned, one fact is clear – the bond is all that matters. From that bond comes the willingness to work for success and the ability to handle difficulties that may arise,” Danea said.
To help her better manage the physical aspects of her ET, Gracie underwent Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) in 2018. With DBS, electrical stimulation is delivered to the brain through an electrode implanted in the thalamus part of the brain. These electrodes produce electrical impulses that regulate abnormal impulses.
The combination of the DBS and the service dog have changed Gracie’s life.
“It has been a miracle combination,” Danea said.
For more information on the Saber Life Foundation, visit www.saberlifefoundation.org.