Dog as Lifeline to Vienna Boy with Mitochondrial Disease

Dog as Lifeline to Vienna Boy with Mitochondrial Disease

Golden Retriever assistance dog connects Jack to schoolmates, community.

Jimmy with Jack, Sydney, Skyler and Riley.

Jimmy with Jack, Sydney, Skyler and Riley. Photo by Joan Brady Photography

Jack DeLacy was not expected to see his second birthday. But by the time he turned 4, it was clear the DeLacys could start planning for a future they never expected to have.

Diagnosed with mitochondrial disease, Jack has a great many challenges. “Mito” primarily affects children and can cause a host of complications including loss of motor control, muscle weakness and pain, seizures, developmental delays and others, according to the United Mitochondrial Disease Foundation.


Jimmy, an assistance dog, and Jack DeLacy, who attends Sunrise Valley Elementary in Reston.

Allison Kaminsky, Shannon DeLacy’s childhood friend, had been volunteering with a non-profit that trains service dogs for children, veterans and young adults. She encouraged the DeLacys to look into getting Jack a dog that might help to improve his quality of life.

Shannon and her husband had always loved dogs. But they weren’t exactly sure how a service dog might benefit their non-verbal son, who, at four, was not yet walking. And the process of getting and maintaining a service dog would require a significant commitment including ongoing training.

But with Alison’s encouragement, they decided to apply and were accepted into the program.

Jack loves golden retriever, Jimmy. Shannon says he is a perfect fit for their family. And as Jack has gotten older, opportunities to interact with children outside of his special education Intellectual Disabilities class have become more limited.

Because of Jimmy though, Shannon says Jack has a kind of super hero status with the kids at Sunrise Valley Elementary in Reston. Other students approach Jack to say hello to Jimmy or to ask about him if he isn’t in school. Jack shows his delight by smiling broadly.

Jimmy’s impact isn’t limited to the DeLacy family. He volunteers with Shannon at her twin’s Vienna elementary school, Flint Hill. When Karen Sparacino, the school’s reading specialist, first announced that parents could sign their kids up to read to Jimmy, 70 kids were signed up on-the-spot.

Sparacino says that reading to Jimmy is about giving early readers confidence. Jimmy listens without judgment. Jimmy doesn’t correct. That takes some of the stress off the young readers.

And the kids know Jimmy is listening because he responds when they read words he understands, like “Treat” and “Drop it.”

Shannon remembers one little girl who arrived to the library with her book in hand. “I don’t read very well. Jimmy may not like this book,” she said, as she arranged herself on the floor next to him. She began reading slowly and carefully. But by the end of the book she was reading with fluidity and inflection.

And reading to a dog doesn’t end with Jimmy. Some of the kids have reported reading to their own dogs at home. At the end of the day, the more kids read, the better, says Sporacino.

Jimmy is a trained assistance dog who definitely works. But he also loves to play with Jack and his three sisters; Riley, Sydney and Skylar.

Joan Brady is a professional photographer; mentor and advocate for current and former foster children; a volunteer with paws4People, Fairfax Families4Kids, and others; and a resident of Great Falls. Reach her at