Dog-walking program helping kids regain mobility

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. – It’s one of Maria Ornelas’s favorite days of the year—dog walking day at Hospital Hill Park.

“Everybody just makes you feel welcome here,” said Ornelas, who often chooses a collies for her companion but really any dog will do. Her mom says it’s one of her daughter’s favorite hobbies to walk in the company of a four-legged friend.

“She loves it. She loves dogs,” said Jeanette Ornelas.

But not long ago, simply walking at all was painful for Maria Ornelas.

“I used to limp a lot, I have Blount’s Disease and I couldn’t really do anything because I had surgery three or four times,” she said.

Ornelas was chosen for this Children’s Mercy Hospital study, which allows kids with orthopedic issues to walk with dogs and their volunteer handlers for several weeks in an effort to get them moving again despite their injuries or illnesses.

“They’re committed to it, they come, they want to see the dogs, they come and they’re excited to see the dogs,” said Coley Vitztum, the head of the experiment at Children’s Mercy. She says what started off as a way to get kids more physically active turned into a lesson in courage.

“I also think they get a lot of confidence. It teaches them that there’s something they can do, that they’re very good at, and that the dogs like them too, so it’s a win-win for them,” said Vitztum.

Maria Ornelas says she’s not as timid as she was a few weeks ago, and when it comes to learning how to walk without a limp she knows the dogs don’t care.

“They always know people by heart,” Ornelas said.

And that unconditional support has her walking tall again.

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