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Assistance dog connects two Carmel Valley families

CARMEL VALLEY —  “What I want to convey to people is, don’t feel sorry for the disabled community. We are just as much human beings as you are. And don’t feel sorry for me because I’m in a wheelchair. Be grateful because I am teaching you a lesson in humanity.”

These heartfelt words came with noticeable physical exertion from the mouth of 16-year-old Jason Gackstetter, a Carmel Valley resident with cerebral palsy. The occasion was the Canine Companions for Independence graduation ceremony in which Jason received his new assistance dog, Taran II. Canine Companions, based in Oceanside, is a non-profit organization that enhances the lives of people with disabilities by providing assistance dogs.

Willie Crawford, Taran’s volunteer puppy raiser, beamed as she handed her leash to Jason and his parents at graduation. Coincidentally, Crawford lives just one mile from the Gackstetters. “My husband and I have known Jason and his family for many years,” said Willie. “We were thrilled to learn Taran was matched with Jason. We couldn’t be more proud.”

Sometimes, people completely disregard Jason, not knowing how to speak to him or act around him. This is where Taran comes in. The Labrador/golden retriever mix in the blue vest captures people’s attention. She is an easy conversation starter. “I would be completely invisible without an assistance dog,” Jason said. “With Taran, it’s like I’m not invisible. The world cares about people like me. I’m not alone.”

Taran is Jason’s second assistance dog from Canine Companions. He received assistance dog, Marisa, when he was only six years old.

On top of benefiting from having an assistance dog in the family, the Gackstetters have appreciated many opportunities to get to know other Canine Companions clients and volunteers, including Willie. “The Canine Companions community has meant so much to us over the years,” said Nancy. “We’ve met so many good friends. It has added to our lives tremendously.”