February 22, 2020

A pawsitive impact: bar mitzvah project aims to help families in need

Alex Michaels will tell you that his dog, Frisco, is no ordinary household pet.

As a trained therapy and service dog, the 2 1/2-year-old poodle is a primary comfort-giver and companion to Alex’s mom, Marlene Michaels, who is fighting stage 4 lung cancer. He stays by her side during the day when Alex; his older brother, Stephen; and his dad, Randy, are out. Frisco patiently accompanies Marlene to all her doctor appointments and the hospital for treatments. And he is a source of love and emotional support to the entire Michaels family as they struggle to cope with Marlene’s illness.

So when Alex, 13, of Westlake Village, considered what to do for his mitzvah project this year, he and his parents knew they wanted to help other families experience the joy that Frisco has given them. Alex, who celebrated his bar mitzvah on March 28 at Camp Ramah in Ojai, set up an online campaign to raise $5,000 to help pay the cost of training a service or therapy dog for other families. As of May 6, he’d raised more than half of his goal.

“I want to raise money to help more people,” said Alex, who attends the Conservative Shomrei Torah Synagogue in West Hills. “I hope it’ll make them feel happy.”

His own family first thought about looking for a service dog for themselves in late 2012, shortly after Marlene was diagnosed. Randy said the family felt that having a dog would provide some relief from the constant focus on his wife’s cancer. 

A friend put them in touch with Jill Breitner, a service and therapy dog trainer who until recently was based in the Los Angeles area and now lives in Northern California. Breitner said she knew of a puppy that would be perfect for them, and the family arranged to meet her and Frisco at a park in Encino.

“It was love at first sight,” Randy said. “He really took not only to the boys but also was so warm and loving toward Marlene, which is a really good sign for a service dog.”

Over the next few months, Breitner trained Frisco, who lived with a breeder. By April 2013, Frisco was ready to begin life in his new home. Marlene said she was worried at first that having both a dog and children in the house would be too chaotic, but Frisco soon proved to be an uplifting and well-behaved member of the family.

“It’s like having a little friend. It’s like mental comfort,” said Marlene, who explained Frisco wears a service dog jacket that allows him to go everywhere with her, including medical facilities. “Wherever I go, he just comes with me. … He keeps me company, and he’s just very easy.” 

“I want to raise money to help more people. I hope it’ll make them feel happy.” — Alex Michaels

When it came time to begin his mitzvah project, Alex had a plan. He called his fundraising campaign “Pi for Pets”  (youcaring.com/piforpets) because, as he writes on his campaign page: “my birthday is 3.14, I love my Frisco to infinity and WHO DOESN’T LOVE PIE!!!!!”

Randy said the family has already identified one person in need and is working with the cancer treatment center City of Hope in Duarte to find others. He said the full cost of training a service dog can range between $5,000 and $10,000, so it won’t be possible to pay the full amount, but Alex plans to help offset about $750 for each family, depending on need. 

Breitner said she was impressed when Alex first talked about doing the project, which she said he did soon after his family got Frisco.

“I just thought, ‘Oh my gosh, what an incredible thing for an 11-year-old to think about doing,’ ” she said. “I think it’s awesome; I think it’s incredible. It’s a testament to the family in how they’ve raised this little munchkin who’s turning into being a wonderful young man.”

Breitner said the definition of service dogs has expanded greatly since the days when they were used primarily as visual aids for the blind. Today, service dogs are used to help people who have various disabilities, and they can perform tasks such as helping people open doors, pick things up, press buttons and carry groceries. Therapy dogs, which are different from service dogs, provide comfort and cheer to people with cancer and other illnesses, she said. Frisco is trained as both a therapy and a service dog, although he is being used as a therapy dog.

Randy said his family is excited to introduce more families to the benefits of having a well-trained service or therapy dog.

“I don’t think we ever imagined [Frisco] would make as much of an impact as he has on our lives,” he said. “It’s just really important for us to raise awareness for service animals to be trained properly and matched up with the right family.”