Service with a Smile and a Waggly Tail

Helen Baldwin avatar

by Helen Baldwin |

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One month after our baby Jeffrey was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy, I met Cindy Schaefer on an SMA message board. Her son, BioNews Services columnist and forums director Kevin Schaefer, was diagnosed with type 2 SMA a couple years before that. During our first actual meeting, Kevin zipped around expertly in his new, shiny, red wheelchair. He was barely 4.

Although our respective realities of SMA differed, Cindy and I bonded like old friends reunited. After Jeffrey’s death, we continued exchanging stories about our families. She kept me posted on Kevin’s progress — and SMA’s.

SMA eventually weakened Kevin’s muscle strength enough that a service dog was deemed essential. Almost exactly 10 years ago, Cindy emailed me from a grueling training:

“Kevin was frustrated yesterday because the dogs he was paired with just didn’t click. Today, though, Jennifer told him she wanted him to spend time with Pandora. It was PERFECT! Pandy is a lab mix … and just gorgeous. She is very laid back and after only a couple minutes was responding to Kevin’s ‘sit’ command, which is pretty astonishing given the fact that there were another 18 dogs in the room and a whole lot of people. AND she’s only 16 months old.”

Kevin and Pandy, love at first sight. (Photo by Cindy Schaefer)


I grew up with pets. My family always had a dog (or two) and a cat (or two). We also had a couple of tiny turtles once and a shoebox of mussels I lugged home from a beach vacation one blistering Texas summer. While the gag-inducing burial for the mussels was prompt upon our return home, it was not soon enough.

When my husband, Randy, and I married, I looked forward to getting our first pet. Randy claimed cats made him sneeze, so I presumed we’d start with a puppy. Wrong! Randy brought home the first pet of what turned into an ongoing list throughout the years: an adorable, multicolored, swirly-haired guinea pig.

When Ethyl was freed on occasion from his elaborate quarters, he had the run of the place. His squeals signaled his sprint-waddle to the kitchen for a slice of tomato, which he dragged merrily back down the hall and under our bed for consumption.

Our family grew. Randy rescued Jacob, a gorgeous keeshond puppy, from an unappreciative home. Maude, an abandoned and goofy springer spaniel, joined us in relatively short order. Our first three furballs coexisted mostly uneventfully and provided years of plentiful joy.

By the time the last of this trio of fur kiddos crossed the Rainbow Bridge, our expanding family included children of the two-legged variety, Matthew and Katie. We then moved and hit the local pound for new family members, Nellie and Duffy. Golden retriever and German shepherd mixes, they were from the same litter. Getting both seemed sensible at the time.

Nellie, front, Matthew, center, and Duffy. (Photo by Helen Baldwin)

Katie, Matthew, Duffy (uncooperative), and Nellie (uncooperative). (Photo by Helen Baldwin)


Pandy’s life as a service dog provided plenty of memorable moments for Kevin. Cindy reported that the furry helper was a natural conversation starter on college campus. Although a Lab mix, Pandy didn’t love water, but she loved life.

She loved Kevin more.


Once we moved to our present old farmhouse, Nellie continued her role as a social butterfly. She was crazy about people and being pampered, and she loved the pond, where she hunted for frogs at any and all opportunities.

Nellie on a frog-hunting mission. (Photo by Helen Baldwin)

Duffy was our only dog ever to dislike anyone outside the family. And every time Nellie hopped into the pond for her beloved frog expeditions, Duffy reminded us of his aversion to water as well.

Duffy was hit and killed on July 7, 1997. The shock, sadness, and ensuing discussion with Matthew and Katie about unexpected death and heaven set the stage for the real performance exactly one week later: the day Jeffrey was diagnosed with SMA. 

Jeffrey was gone at 5 1/2 months.

Nine years after our SMA assignment, my father’s health declined abruptly and quickly until he ditched his earthly shoes. Nellie’s health simultaneously took its own nosedive until her meetup with the angels mere weeks later.

Duffy and Jeffrey had been with us the shortest time of any family members.

Nellie and Dad had been with us the longest.


Team Kevin and Pandy accomplished much, including graduation from NC State University. As Pandy eased slowly into retirement, Kevin acquired a JACO robotic arm. This phenomenal, life-changing tool provided Kevin with enhanced independence, enabling Pandy to enjoy the perks of a simple family dog’s life.

NC State graduates Kevin and Pandy. (Photo by Cindy Schaefer)

Last week, after 10 terrific years with Kevin and the rest of the exceptional Schaefer family, Pandy crossed the Rainbow Bridge.


Most pets don’t have certificates of service training, but the services they provide instinctively should garner some sort of recognition. Companionship, exercise, protection, enthusiasm, entertainment, and comfort — all unconditional — are just a few that are worthy.

And they act like it’s a genuine honor to serve.

Humans, please take notice.

Pandy enjoys Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri, during a Cure SMA conference. (Photo by Cindy Schaefer)


Note: SMA News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of SMA News Today, or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to spinal muscular atrophy.


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