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Service dog earns place in a life, heart

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BOUNTIFUL — A year ago, Takoma was put to rest.

Abram Bryson, 19, who is severely handicapped, bravely gave his service dog, an 85-pound black Labrador retriever, permission to die.

The young Bountiful man, who has been afflicted with arthrogryposis (a form of muscular dystrophy) since birth, held the critically ill service dog's head in his lap, told him he loved him, expressed appreciation for his care and said goodbye for the last time.

Now, Bryson is attempting to rebuild that same kind of trust with a new service dog, Icon, he received a month ago.

The bond may not be as strong yet between Abram and Icon as it was with Takoma, but the potential for trust and love between the man and the dog and obedience by Icon seems to be developing well.

"I love Icon, and he loves me. There is no doubt about that. I can tell when he looks at me. It's hard to explain, but I can tell he loves me," he said.

Takoma came to him from Canine Companions for Independence, Santa Rosa, Calif., and they had five happy years together until the dog contracted an aggressive form of cancer and eventually had to be euthanized.

"The most important thing to me is that Takoma was always there. No matter where I went he was with me," Bryson said.

It was tough on the fragileyoung man, who shortly before had walked across the Woods Cross High School stage for his graduation with the Takoma at his side. The loss was also tough on his parents, Eric and Susan Bryson, and on veterinarians at Lakeview Animal Hospital in Bountiful.

This spring, Bryson, an Eagle Scout and avid computer game fan, trained with and received Icon, a gentle but somewhat energetic 2-year-old Lab and golden retriever mix.

Abram recently visited the clinic where Dr. Warren J. Hess, the veterinarian who took care of Takoma, checked Abram's new friend and companion. It was Hess who diagnosed a tumor in a toe of Takoma's right front foot. The toe was amputated but that and other treatment didn't stop the malignant tumor from spreading.

"Abram was very compassionate for the dog. He didn't want the dog to suffer. It was difficult for him, but I think he was very noble" through it all, Hess said. Hess, president of the Utah Veterinary Medical Association, said he's very impressed with Icon. "He's learning how to be a good service dog," he said. "You can't replace Takoma, but you can start Icon on a new relationship based on Abram's needs."

Bryson has had numerous surgeries and wears full-length leg braces but lacks muscle strength to enable him to bend over and pick things up. The teen said he's found that he must be firm with Icon so the dog will learn what it needs to know.

Susan and Eric Bryson must lift their son in and out of their family van because the vehicle lacks an automatic loading device. Abram walks very precariously because his knees and ankles don't bend. He must travel in a wheelchair if he has to walk any distance, but he hopes to attend Salt Lake Valley Community College this fall if transportation and other arrangements can be worked out.

"With Takoma, he (Abram) could do most anything," Susan Bryson said. "People marveled as they watched Takoma pay the cashier (with money in his teeth or a bag) at a store or pick up dropped items that Abram could not reach. Both dog and boy felt the respect and admiration from others because they were a team. There was something magical between them. We could all feel it."

With a new dog in the household, the Brysons hope their son and Icon will develop a similar bond. Susan Bryson said Takoma was "so important to our family. It was hard at first to imagine life without him. Each day we are thankful for the love and dedication he brought into our home. As parents, we are especially grateful for what he did for our son, that we were not able to do for him ourselves. Takoma lived for Abram, even as he served him each day. We feel Icon will do the same."

E-MAIL: palmer@desnews.com