Windermere High junior Grace Utzinger has a hereditary disorder that makes it painful to move and causes dizziness, and that’s where her service dog, Lincoln, comes into play.
Whenever you see Grace Utzinger, you’re sure to see her sidekick, Lincoln — whether it’s at the theme parks, in church or around Windermere High School. The 75-pound Australian labradoodle is Grace’s service dog and is trained to help her manage her Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, which causes the teenager dizziness and daily chronic pain.
“I have pain every day,” Grace said. “But the days I’m able to do things despite the pain are more frequent than the days I have to stay in bed. Without him every day would be a bad day. … He helps me with mobility and chronic pain management.”
She said the dizziness has improved, and where she used to get dizzy several times a day, it now just happens four or five times a week.
Lincoln is a mobility assistance dog, and his job is to wait until given verbal or physical commands. If Grace drops something, she tells him, “Pick it up.”
If she becomes dizzy and pulls to one side, Lincoln, wearing his harness with a special handle, counterbalances that weight to keep her upright. He is an important part of her everyday life.
Years before Lincoln came into the lives of Grace and her parents, Robert and Lana Utzinger, Grace started complaining about pain. She was diagnosed with the EDS around age 10 and prescribed medication, but she didn’t like the way it made her feel.
After dealing with the pain throughout her teen years, Grace started researching service dogs to see if there was one that would work for her. She discovered the Australian labradoodle had the characteristics she needed to support her — and then they found Lincoln. He was adopted at eight weeks about two-and-one-half years ago, and Grace immediately began the training.
Last year, she started working with Danielle Blasingame of Diversity Canine, in south Orlando, to get him certified for AKC behavior classes and to help with his training.
Everyone at school knows Lincoln. He’s so popular he was even nominated to the Homecoming court, although he didn’t win. He has been to Homecoming and prom — and donned his tuxedo for the occasion. He has accompanied Grace to all of her band concerts and MPA band assessments, and if she’s wearing concert black, he has on his tux. The pair were together while Grace played clarinet with the band at the recent Horizon West Fest.
Lincoln even has his own student ID, hall pass for potty breaks and photo in the yearbook.
He and Grace also were nominated for “dynamic duo” in the Wolverine marching band.
Several allowances have been made for Grace at school. She is allowed to leave six minutes early from her classes so Lincoln doesn’t get up in the commotion of classroom changes in the hallways. For upstairs classes, Grace and Lincoln take the elevator.
During band practice in the classroom, he sits beside her like he does in every other class. He was desensitized to loud music and noises when he was a puppy, Grace said. When practice moves outside, he is nearby and ready to task when she asks him.
Lincoln assists Grace several times a day.
“If I drop, say, a water bottle or my phone or a pencil at school, bending will either make me dizzy or cause too much pain,” Grace said. “I’ll give him the command, ‘Pick it up.’ I trained him myself, so I got to pick his command word.”
Retrieving dropped items isn’t Lincoln’s only job.
“His main task is deep pressure therapy,” Grace said. “He is taught to put as much weight as possible on part of my body, mostly my legs. It’s most common that I’ll use him for my legs. And that works because the nerve fibers that detect pressure and pain are intertwined, so if you stimulate one long enough, it will block it from the pain nerve.”
It’s hard to miss Lincoln when he’s around — he likely has on a bright ensemble, whether it’s his yellow harness, aqua vest or colorful bandannas. The Utzingers keep his tail dyed, too — it’s currently purple and blue — because it kept getting stepped on, Grace said.
Grace is a junior at Windermere High and has narrowed down her field of college study to either medicine or music. When she’s not at school or band practice, she frequents Walt Disney World, enjoys movie nights with friends and attends the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints youth group on Wednesday nights. And right beside her is her buddy and lifesaver, Lincoln.
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