BURRILLVILLE – When the Bisson family rescued Pepé, a then 5-year-old Standard Poodle, they had no idea how the pet would come to change their quality of life.
Holly Bisson, 35, has Down syndrome and at the time, mother Annie Bisson says her daughter would often get frustrated trying to communicate, leading to tense and sometimes frightening situations in the home.
“Her language skills aren’t super,” Annie said.
Pepé’s previous owner had recently died, and Annie said she hoped to give the dog temporary shelter while helping to find a new permanent placement.
That plan changed the day the Bissons met Pepé.
“He attached himself to Holly,” said Annie. “He wouldn’t leave her side.”
Back at home in Pascoag, Pepé followed Holly as she walked through the house, just steps behind her.
The dog slept in Holly’s bed that first night two years ago, and he’s been there ever since.
Annie says she first knew Pepé was special one day soon after he moved in, when her daughter was having a mood swing, a somewhat frequent occurrence in the Bisson home related to Holly’s condition.
“He got between us and leaned against her,” Annie said. “She was petting him and all of a sudden there was no more anger.”
“To me, it was surprising,” she said. “Poodles are extremely smart.”
Annie spoke to the family doctor about the possibility of making Pepé Holly’s official service dog and was told that the plan might help. She then contacted Stonewall Canine in Bellingham, Mass., and was put in contact with trainer Jen.
Jen began working with Holly on teaching the already well-mannered dog how to walk without tension on the leash, get in and out of cars properly, and behave in a public setting.
Last year, Pepé earned his Canine Good Citizen certificate from the American Kennel Club, and the service dog training continued, with the dog learning to be both a protector for Holly, and a constant companion. The service dog certification requires that the owner is in full control of the pet in any setting, from a busy bank, to a shopping mall or restaurant, where Pepé will sit quietly under the table.
“He needs to be fixed on her and only her,” said Annie. “He can’t bark. He can’t bully other dogs. Jen wanted as many experiences as we could get.”
On Friday, Nov. 19, Holly and Pepé took the final service dog test, and passed. Holly’s new t-shirt, marked with the words, “Just a girl who loves her service dog,” also arrived in the mail.
“I don’t know anyone else that has a child with Down syndrome that has a service dog,” said Annie. “She is fully responsible for him. Holly has worked really hard to be able to reach this goal.”
Now, Pepé goes everywhere with his owner, and on the rare instances he can’t, the dog will sit and wait by the door for, “his girl.” If a car is coming, Pepe will stop Holly from walking in front of it.
“He just knows this stuff,” Annie said. “Surprisingly, this dog knows how to be safe.”
And of the fights that were once so common in the Bisson home?
“Since we’ve had him, we haven’t had any,” Annie said. “He calms her down. We have a better conversation. It’s like night and day.”
The pooch, Annie says, was skinny when he first arrived, before the new owners learned he had a sensitive stomach.
“He’s thriving now,” she said. “Holly is thriving as well. It’s made all the difference in her life. She has a confidence I’ve never seen before.”
The grateful mother is now hoping their success story can reach others.
“It’s awesome,” Annie said. “I think this could help other families. This has been the most amazing experience.”
“This dog has rewarded Holly with just what she was missing, we just didn’t know it,” Annie said. “He is, like, the best dog ever. There’s something about him… I think he just belonged here. He belonged with her, and he belonged in our house.”