Prayerful paws: Guide dog gift to musically talented owner

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As a lector read from Ecclesiastes, a dog lay in a patch of sunshine next to a pew at St. Ann Church in Arlington. The black Lab readjusted a paw and closed her eyes, appearing to settle into a meditation on the first reading.

Moments later, after hearing a gentle command, Mileigh (pronounced "Miley") led Molly Eschelbach up the altar steps so the young woman could cantor during the Sunday morning Mass.

Mileigh is a guide dog, and like most service animals, she's by her owner's side at all times. This dog, however, not only goes to grocery stores, movie theaters, malls and restaurants. She also regularly attends Mass and choir practice with her musically gifted owner.

Missionhurst Father Ramel ("Mel") O. Portula, pastor of St. Ann, said Mileigh's presence at church benefits more than just Eschelbach. "She raises awareness of the needs of handicapped people," he said. And with all her hours logged in church, Mileigh "is in a way Catholic, too," laughed Father Mel.

Eschelbach is a convert to Catholicism who made her musical debut in a Lutheran church choir at just 3 years old. Before moving to Northern Virginia last year, she sang with a semiprofessional choir in her home state of Michigan.

Mileigh's musical career, though, "sadly had to be cut short," said Eschelbach in an interview after Mass. Attending her first-ever rehearsal, the Lab - "a tenor" - contributed her own "singing," Eschelbach recalled. The musical enthusiasm was curbed, and the Lab now can snooze through any volume of music, "even French horns," said Eschelbach.

At 13 years old, Eschelbach was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited, degenerative eye disease. Although she still has some sight, the 30-year-old is legally blind - with tunnel vision, partial color blindness and limited depth perception. She eventually will lose nearly all her sight.

Eschelbach said she coped with her vision loss through high school and college, but four years ago she "knew the time had come to receive more help."

She taught herself how to use a cane, yet "with a cane there's a lot more stigma, a big red flag that someone is different," she said. A "dog person," Eschelbach decided to apply for a guide dog from Leader Dogs for the Blind in Rochester Hills, Mich. Through the organization, puppy raisers give the dogs love and teach them basic commands, such as sit, stay and heel. After puppyhood, the dogs receive advanced training before being matched with a legally blind individual. The matchmaking process takes into account a person's walking speed, lifestyle and personality. Once matched, the new owner and the dog undergo a personalized 26-day training program.

Eschelbach, who has master's degrees in theological studies and counseling, said she never will forget the day she received the call telling her about Mileigh. It was three years ago in January, around the feast of Epiphany. It seemed the perfect time, she said, to meet the animal that's become a treasured gift in her life.

Mileigh helps Eschelbach avoid obstacles, navigate curbs and cross the street. "The biggest thing she does is take away a lot of my anxiety," said Eschelbach.

At church, where she's known as "the choir dog," Mileigh helps Eschelbach go up and down stairs and guides her to Communion.

Echoing Father Mel, choir director Jamie Sample said Mileigh enriches both the choir and parish. "She shows our community what an important role assistance dogs play in daily life," she said. She's also "a physical reminder of the wonder and grace of God's creation, right there in the sanctuary every Sunday."

When at Mass or elsewhere, Mileigh wears a lightweight harness with a sign reading, "Do not pet me I am working." But once home, the harness comes off and Mileigh lives like an average dog - she runs, plays catch, savors scratches behind the ears and gobbles up treats for good behavior. The only difference is "that she's totally spoiled," said Eschelbach, admitting that Mileigh sometimes goes by "Princess Mileigh the Opera Diva Dog."

Though full of energy, the Lab "is gentle, great with children and babies, and is a big sweetheart," Eschelbach said. Mileigh also is sensitive to emotions and "can tell if we're sad or when someone is really happy."

Looking down at her silky black companion, Eschelbach added, "I take care of her, and she takes care of me."

4 tips for supporting service animals and their owners

Molly Eschelbach suggests the following when you see a guide dog:

1) Ask before petting. Unexpected pats on the head can distract service animals from their important work.

2) Keep noise levels down. Loud or strange noises also are distracting.

3) Check before helping. Stepping in with a helping hand comes with the best intentions, but it can interfere with a dog's work. Asking first ensures a person truly needs assistance.

4) Curiosity is OK. Owners love their guide dogs and typically are happy to answer any questions people

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016