(TOUCHING TALE) TENNESSEE — When 4 year-old Lucus Hembree was diagnosed with Sanfilippo syndrome, an incurable disease that causes severe neurological damage, his family searched long and hard to find him a service dog. When they were told one of the dogs would cost as much as 15,000 dollars and Lucas wasn’t a good match, they refused to give up. This is when they came across Juno, an abandoned Belgian Malinois who was only days away from being euthanized at a shelter in East Tennessee. Read more to see how rescuing Juno has literally saved Lucas’s life.  — Global Animal 
Lucas Hembree and his rescued dog, Juno. Photo Credit: Hembree Family / Vetstreet.com

Vetstreet.com, Michelle Liefer

As nearly anyone who has adopted a dog or cat from a shelter can attest, there’s something special about a rescued pet; it’s as if the animal senses he’s been given a second chance at life. That’s certainly the case with Juno, a Belgian Malinois who was rescued from a shelter just days before she was to be euthanized. But since coming to live with her family in Alcoa, Tenn., Juno has taken on the role of rescuer to four-year-old Lucas Hembree.

Lucas suffers from Sanfilippo syndrome, an inherited, metabolic disease caused by the absence or malfunctioning of an enzyme needed to break down long sugar molecules. As the disease progresses, children lose the ability to speak, walk and eat. The disease also causes severe neurological damage that leads to aggressive behavior, hyperactivity and seizures.

“The most catastrophic thing parents hear when they learn their child has this disease is that there’s no cure or treatment available,” says Lucas’ father, Chester.

Unless that changes, Lucas isn’t expected to live past the age of 15 and may be in a vegetative state by the time he is eight. Realizing that every moment is extra precious, Chester and his wife, Jennifer, want their son to experience as much as he can while he still has the capacity to enjoy it.

Juno helps keep Lucas calm. Photo Credit: Hembree Family

Prayer and persistence 
So when the disease started to take a toll on Lucas’ joints, Chester looked into getting a service dog to keep Lucas steady when he walked. “I was told that a service dog would cost at least $15,000, and that Lucas wasn’t a good candidate because of his deteriorating abilities and his behavior,” Chester says. “I refused to accept this answer.”

A combination of prayer and persistence led Chester to Juno. “I came across a posting about her on a rescue group’s website,” he says. “I had the feeling in my gut that I had to go see this dog.”

The whole family made the two-hour trip to meet Juno, who was being held at an east Tennessee shelter. “She was emaciated, and was days away from being euthanized,” Chester says. “She had been surrendered to the shelter because her previous owners didn’t understand the Belgian Malinois.”

Fortunately, Chester did. He’d gotten to know and love the breed while working as a law enforcement officer years earlier.

Lucas' dad, Chester, knew Juno was a special dog right from the start. Photo Credit: Hembree Family

“I used to help with the training of police K-9s, and our dogs were Belgian Malinoises,” he says. “I loved their desire to work and their ‘never quit’ attitude.”  In addition to being a popular choice for police dogs, the breed is often used in combat. In fact, it’s believed that the dog that helped Navy SEALs take down Osama bin Laden was a Belgian Malinois.

Showered with love and affection 
But while the breed has proven its prowess on patrol and in combat, Chester needed to be sure Juno would be a suitable service dog for his little boy. “I put her on a loose leash and she walked with me and never pulled,” Chester says. “Next came the Lucas test. They took to each other immediately, like kindred spirits.”

The Hembrees brought Juno home and showered her with love and affection.

“I wanted to make sure she had plenty of time to adjust to the family before I started the formal training,” Chester says. Yet, from the beginning there seemed to be something instinctive about their relationship. One day, Chester noticed Juno circling Lucas while he was in his wheelchair. “She was whining and nudging him with her nose,” Chester says. “I checked his oxygen levels and they were very low.” After giving him oxygen, Lucas returned to normal and Juno greeted him with licks and affection.

Juno watches over Lucas during a recent trip to the hospital. Lucas and Juno received more than 6,000 Christmas cards from well-wishers around the world. This was the first batch. Photo Credit: Hembree Family

“That’s when I knew she had the ability to pick up on his neurological changes,” Chester says. “Now she alerts us when Lucas is about to have a seizure or if his oxygen levels drop really low. She has saved him several times.

Juno has become a literal shoulder for Lucas to lean on when walking, and a calming influence when he’s agitated. And while Chester makes sure that Juno gets time off, he says that it’s hard to get Juno to leave Lucas’ side. “You don’t see one without the other close by,” he says. “It really feels like it was meant to be.”                 

More from Vetstreet: http://www.vetstreet.com/our-pet-experts/lucas-and-juno-the-special-relationship-between-a-sick-4-year-old-boy-and-his-dog

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4 COMMENTS

  1. Chester, well done! I used to take my dog Billie in Canada to the hospice to visit with the old, and dying. What an incredible experience. One old lady never spoke until she saw Billie. A smile came to her face every time.
    I live in Italy and my dream is to start a refuge for all the abandoned dogs and cats here..they are just dumped in the streets because the rescue facilities are crap. I have two four-legged angels…one rescued in Spain, ROBBI, the other a little puppy, rescued at 3 months from the streets of Palermo Sicily. Check out my Youtube channel and see the video of these two maniacs. Sales from my book, When Angels Fall will go to finance my dream…an animal shelter…Abandoned Angels. You can see the book trailer on my channel. Happy doggy tails from Italy! Please help ABANDONED ANGELS http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ee_6IrbQEXI&feature=plcp. Kisses from Robbi and Cleo.