LAS CRUCES, N.M. (AP) — John-Dylan Cully, 11, of Las Cruces and his new dog Colonel cuddle on the living room rug. He brushes Colonel's shiny black coat, kissing his nose and cooing praise.
John-Dylan waited seven years for Colonel, and now he is here.
The East Picacho Elementary School fifth-grader has Ullrich congenital muscular dystrophy, a genetic condition causing severe muscle weakness over time. Though wheelchair-bound and with limited arm movement, John-Dylan hasn't let his condition stop him from earning a black belt in tae kwon do.
Colonel, a service dog, aims to bolster that independence even more, helping John-Dylan with everything from picking up dropped objects and opening doors to getting help if he falls.
"It's just something that could help me with my life and something mom and dad can leave me alone with," said John-Dylan, who now relies on his parents to grab items or open doors.
Colonel wears a dark green service vest with a large "Do not touch" patch on his back. He's a working dog, after all.
Federal law requires all public places admit Colonel.
More than 1,600 people in the country are on the Canine Assistants waiting list while only 40 to 50 dogs are given out each year to people with muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, post-traumatic stress disorder and seizures, dad John Cully said.
"It's going to be a big confidence booster for him," he said. "He won't have to rely on his mother and I as much."
Colonel also takes John-Dylan's wheelchair out of the picture, he said, as people focus more on the dog than the chair.
"He can help if I fall down on the ground and get help," John-Dylan said. "Just something that can help me erase my wheelchair."
Father and son spent April 7-19 at a training camp in Georgia before officially receiving Colonel at the end of the two weeks.
The dogs begin training and wearing service vests soon after they are born. Trainers and foster families ensure they are exposed to everything, from elevators to pots and pans.
Colonel already knows about 90 commands, some of which simply require a look and he sits or lays down. He can also urinate on command.
At the training session, the dog chooses the owner. A trainer brings out a group of dogs and watches how they interact with the potential owners, seeing which ones bond best.
Colonel chose John-Dylan. The black lab and retriever mix turns 2 in May.
"These two were the stars of their class," John said. "The trainers said they did really well together."
Now home, the duo work on bonding the first two weeks.
"The only person' who's supposed to be treating him or doing anything fun with him is John-Dylan," mom Jamie Cully said. "They want him to know the good things come from him."
She and John fill Colonel's bowl with food, but place it on John-Dylan's lap for feeding. Colonel licks the bowl clean in a matter of seconds.
About half of Colonel's strict daily food allotment goes into John-Dylan's treat bag, which John-Dylan doles out copiously.
Colonel accompanied the family to church on Sunday and was very well-behaved, John said.
"All he did was sit," he said, until John-Dylan spilled half of the treat bag on the floor and a feeding frenzy began. "But everything went well."
The hardest part of the training process will be teaching the people around John-Dylan not to touch or talk to Colonel, encouraging him to look for attention, Jamie said.
"A lot of the training is you want the dog focused on the person and not everyone else," she said.
John-Dylan shows off Colonel's skills, dropping a TV remote for Colonel to pick up. The dog quickly scoops up the remote and drops it in
John-Dylan's lap, searching for a treat. They try out "tug" next, asking Colonel to open a cabinet door by pulling on a red bandana tied to its handle, but that trick needs some work.
John-Dylan is excited to take the dog to school this fall, once the family feels he has complete control of Colonel.
"Really nobody else brings a dog to school," he said, "and all the kids are going to be jealous."