A well-deserved degree for two: Fike grad and her service dog in spotlight

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Whenever Brittany Hawley went to class, her loyal service dog, Griffin, was there. If she needed her cellphone, Griffin would fetch it. Even when she assisted patients as part of an internship, Griffin was there helping out as well.

So it’s only fitting that when Hawley was honored for receiving her master’s degree in occupational therapy from Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York, over the weekend, Griffin was once again at her side — with an honorary diploma of his own.

“I pushed for him to graduate from Day One,” Hawley said Monday. “He did everything I did.”

Hawley, a graduate of Fike High School, is the daughter of Dennis and Sandy Hawley of Elm City. She was diagnosed with complex regional pain syndrome, which is also known as reflex sympathetic dystrophy syndrome or CRPS/RSD, when she was a teenager.

The board of trustees at Clarkson honored Griffin, a 4-year-old golden retriever, at a recognition ceremony Saturday, saying he demonstrated “extraordinary effort, steadfast commitment and diligent dedication to the well-being and student success” of Hawley.

Hawley, 25, uses a wheelchair and has chronic pain. She said Griffin does a wide range of physical tasks for her including opening doors, turning on lights and bringing her items she indicates with a laser pointer. But perhaps more important is the comfort the dog provides amid her relentless, severe pain that causes anxiety and depression.

Hawley got Griffin through “paws4people,” a program that teaches inmates at West Virginia prisons to train and place high-level assistance dogs.

“The inmates allow many dogs to come up to you and let the dog choose you,” Hawley said. “Some dogs were scared of the wheelchair. Griffin jumped right into my lap and licked me across the face.”

Hawley and Griffin worked at Fort Bragg during an internship, helping soldiers with mobility impairments as well as psycho-social disorders. Brushing a dog can help improve a patient’s range of motion, and stroking him helps ease anxiety, Hawley said.

“My patients would say, ‘My therapist today is Brittany and Griffin,’” she said.

When she applies for jobs, she and Griffin will be a package deal, Hawley said. Right now, she is back in Wilson County studying for her board exams.

“I couldn’t participate in anything without him,” Hawley said. “I’m so used to him being there.”

Symptoms of CRPS/RSD, a chronic neurological disease, include prolonged and severe pain, change in skin temperature and skin color and swelling. The syndrome usually manifests itself after an injury.

“The only thing we can think of is that she bumped into a fence during softball tryouts her sophomore year,” Sandy Hawley told The Wilson Times in 2011.

Brittany Hawley is Ms. Wheelchair North Carolina USA. She competes for the national title in July.

Since Hawley’s story broke on Monday through The Associated Press, it has been picked up by newspapers and TV stations in this country and around the world from USA Today and New York Daily News to The Times of India.