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Service dog brings new life
January 11, 2010, 03:30 AM By Bill Silverfarb

Bill Silverfarb/Daily Journal Gary Drach's dog Donald holds down a receipt while Drach signs it. Donald is a service dog that helps Drach with many chores around the house including helping with the laundry.

Gary Drach was diagnosed with Arterio-Venous Malformation at the age of 13. At the age of 30, Drach was told by a doctor he would eventually have a stroke and die.

At the age of 47, Drach woke up one morning with an incredible headache, a numb right arm and slurred speech. He had a stroke. Doctors at Stanford Hospital had started to prepare his wife Peggy for the worst outcome — that we would die.

Even though Drach, now 57, knew he had AVM, he was not prepared for life after his stroke. He had 18 months of intense rehabilitation at Mills-Peninsula Hospital in San Mateo after a lengthy hospital stay.

AVM is an abnormal connection between the arteries and veins in the brain that usually forms before birth and has no symptoms until it ruptures.

Rehabilitation helped him immensely but he has a hard time keeping his balance since most of the right side of his body is paralyzed. He has no use of his right arm and needed a brace to walk.

His slurred speech and physical limitations kept the man indoors for the most part. He did not want to face the world or be seen.

He took great comfort in his two rescue dogs, Goldie and Stoney. When Stoney died in 2006, the couple decided to adopt another dog from a group in Sacramento that rescues golden retrievers.

While the couple searched for a new companion for Goldie, Drach came across a Web site that trains service dogs for people with various disabilities.

He did not think he would qualify for a service dog but gave Canine Companions for Independence in Santa Rosa a call anyway.

To his surprise, the nonprofit group said he could be a candidate for a service dog and was put on a waiting list. It took three years before Drach was invited to Santa Rosa to see if there was a dog suitable enough to take home.

While there, Drach met Donald, a black Labrador mix. The two have been inseparable ever since. Drach spent more than two weeks back in August going through 10-hour training days with Donald and the staff at Canine Companions.

"They trained me to use Donald,” Drach said. "Donald didn’t have to be trained.”

He has only had Donald for five months but the dog has somehow completely transformed his life and given him a new confidence he thought he had lost forever.

"It is a world of difference,” Drach said. "My self confidence is way up. He has made me go out in public again.”

Donald helps Drach with grocery shopping, the telephone, the laundry and even helps him take off his sweater. Donald is there when Drach may stumble or fall — a reassurance that means so much to the man.

"I never knew a dog could do all of these things,” Drach said.

Donald has a bit of a story, too. The dog was born at a Montana prison and raised by a convict for its first 15 months of life.

The dog’s life started in a prison surrounded by cages. These days, the dog helps Drach free himself from the cage he put himself in.

"When Donald’s blue vest is on he is all business but when its off he’s just like any other dog. He can lounge around all day,” Drach said.

Once a week, Gary Drach and Donald pay a visit to the gym for a workout. He is starting to see some muscles coming back to his right leg after suffering the stroke 10 years ago.

Any improvements Drach makes in his life now can be directly attributed to his 24-hour-a-day companion, Donald, a companion given to him free of charge.

For more information on Canine Companions for Independence check out:

Bill Silverfarb can be reached by e-mail: or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 106.

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