Goodbye to a service dog whose help will be missed

She hated thunder and lightning. She loved airline flights and grocery shopping. She was everything to Tony DiGuardi.

“Mary was my world. I never felt alone,” the 61-year-old Everett man said.

Now DiGuardi is alone, and grieving. An eavesdropper hearing him talk about his beloved Mary Jane might guess he just lost his wife.

Mary Jane was DiGuardi’s service dog. A beautiful black dog, in pictures she looks like a Labrador retriever. Her owner called her a “Chinese greyhound” and said she was a Shar Pei-greyhound mix.

Whatever the breed, Mary Jane was a best friend and medical assistant to DiGuardi, who suffers from multiple sclerosis and cardiovascular disease.

In November, Mary Jane was diagnosed with a type of canine cancer. Before she was put to sleep recently at Broadway Animal Hospital, DiGuardi said she could no longer recognize him.

Mary Jane is so deeply missed that DiGuardi has invited friends to a “potluck-wake” for the dog at 2 p.m. Sunday in the lounge of Lilly’s Garden, a Chinese restaurant on N. Broadway near his studio apartment.

The man and his dog came often to Lilly’s Garden, said Thomas Lee, son of the restaurant’s owner. “I’d see him four times a week. The dog was never a problem,” Lee said.

For the better part of a decade, Mary Jane was DiGuardi’s constant companion. They made a daily routine of grocery shopping and were a familiar sight at the Broadway Safeway. “Whether you wanted to or not, she’d take you down the doggie aisle and to the deli,” DiGuardi said.

Once, the pair took a trip to Virginia. He has pictures of the dog in an airline seat surrounded by flight attendants

Mary Jane, DiGuardi said, had an uncanny ability to predict his seizures an hour in advance, and to remind him to take medicine on time. He has relapsing-­remitting MS, and sometimes uses a wheelchair.

Evidence of his failing health is everywhere in the tiny apartment. A pillbox, divided into sections for each day, is packed with medications to be taken day and night. Near his wheelchair is a cane for getting around the apartment.

A medical aide — a human helper — stops by to help DiGuardi and accompany him to appointments at the Seattle VA Medical Center on Beacon Hill.

“I’m not going to get any better,” the Army veteran said.

Mary Jane was just a pup, 8 weeks old, when he got her from a friend in Carnation. At the time, he had a 14-year-old Labrador-Rottweiler named Trinket. “Mary Jane had a mentor,” said DiGuardi, who also sent the dog for training.

He doesn’t believe he’ll live long enough to train and keep a new dog. His hope is that someone has a dog they can’t keep. He’d like to train a dog as a helper, and eventually give it to a needy veteran or family. “Maybe a landlord won’t let them have a dog,” said DiGuardi, who found Trinket at an animal shelter.

DiGuardi’s grief is real, said Michelle Cobey, a resource support worker with the Delta Society, a Bellevue-based organization that works with therapy animals to bolster people’s health through hospital visits and other programs.

“For people who have service dogs, it’s even harder than losing a pet. You almost lose your independence,” Cobey said. “Often it’s a long-term relationship. It’s really difficult to lose a friend.”

Mary Jane’s loyalty extended to snuggling next to DiGuardi if he suffered a seizure. It’s a mystery how she sensed it. Even when he was asleep she’d awaken him with taps on the chest before such an episode, he said.

“They do believe it is something in a smell that allows them to alert someone to a seizure before it happens,” Cobey said.

She understands the depth of DiGuardi’s loss. “Your pet never judges you. One of the hardest things to hear is, ‘It was just an animal,’” she said.

In his wallet, DiGuardi has a card that he used to explain the dog’s constant presence. The card says: “I’m a service dog, in accordance with the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990.”

“We’ve been part of the education process in this city,” DiGuardi said.

Sick and lonely, he is left with snapshots, memories and hope for a new canine friend.

“We were the whole world to each other,” he said.

Columnist Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460 or muhlstein@heraldnet.com.

Service dog remembered

Tony DiGuardi will hold what he calls a “potluck-wake” for his service dog, Mary Jane, at 2 p.m. Sunday in the lounge of Lilly’s Garden restaurant, 1020 N. Broadway, Everett. Friends of DiGuardi and his dog are welcome. DiGuardi, who hopes to find another dog, can be reached at 425-258-0636, ext. 108.

For information about the Delta Society, which promotes the role of animals in human health and well-being: www.deltasociety.org.

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