G reg Demeule has always gotten by with a little help from his friends — friends with golden hair, glad hearts and liquid brown eyes.
Born prematurely in South Korea and weighing under 4 pounds, Greg was adopted by Richard and Madeline Demeule when he was five months old. He grew up in Londonderry.
It was his mother, who had a medical background, who recognized her son’s physical disabilities. Doctors diagnosed him with cerebral palsy.
Years of physical therapy followed. Then doctors recommended the boy could benefit from a service dog.
Demeule got his first service dog in 2003 when he was 11 years old — a golden retriever named Ali who provided the stability and confidence he needed to be able to walk independently.
“He was really a kind of gentle soul,” Demeule said. “I really loved him a lot.”
After Ali retired, Demeule’s second service dog, a golden named Sprinkles, went off to college with him — and even earned her own diploma.
“She was so proud,” he said.
Demeule has a new dog now, a male golden/lab mix named Advocate, who helps him maneuver his busy schedule of work, errands and activities. Advocate carries Demeule’s shopping bags, picks up things that he drops, and helps stabilize him when he climbs the stairs to his Manchester apartment.
But what all three canine companions really did, Demeule said, was help him discover who he is.
“When I was growing up and really little, there would be different situations that ... would really discourage me from being able to embrace who I was,” Demeule said.
Because of his disability, it was easy for others to judge who he was and what he could accomplish, Demeule said.
“I was able to see how people thought differently of me, not necessarily because of who I was internally or what I was capable of, but what limitations they saw,” he said.
And for a child in a wheelchair, it’s easy to internalize such perceptions, he said.
The dogs would have none of it. And dogs don’t judge.
“Having this series of service dogs really changes the public’s perception of me,” he said.
The dogs altered his self-image as well, he said. And as a result, “I made a point of stepping up to the plate myself and challenging myself in ways people might not expect,” he said.
When Demeule went off to college at Salve Regina University in Newport, R.I., “Sprinkles was just as much a part of the Salve Regina community as I was,” he said.
Indeed, when commencement arrived in 2015, “She got her name called during graduation with everyone else,” he said.
Demeule got all three dogs from ECAD (Educated Canines Assisting with Disabilities), a Connecticut-based nonprofit organization that raises and trains service dogs.
Lu Picard started ECAD with her husband in their garage in 1995. She estimates they have placed more than 300 dogs since then.
Demeule is special, she said.
“Greg has a pretty confident personality, and he’s always optimistic,” she said.
“When he came to me, he was pretty ambitious already, but he had a really hard time walking,” she recalled. Ali “became his balancer,” she said.
A service dog can change how others see someone like Demeule, Picard said. “They see less and less of his disability or his limitations,” she said. “Now they just see a guy with his dog.”
Last year was tough for Demeule.
Sprinkles, who was 10, fell ill and was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. “She passed away early in the same week that New Hampshire went into a lockdown,” he said.
“We hadn’t spent a single day apart from each other ever,” he said. “It was a really close bond for sure.”
Demeule suddenly found himself isolated from his work as an academic advisor for online students at Southern New Hampshire University, cut off from his other activities, and without the comfort of his beloved companion.
“I had not been without a service dog since I was 11 years old,” he said.
He called Lu Picard, who promised to find him a new dog as soon as possible. But it falls to the client to help raise the money to purchase and train a dog, and Demeule despaired.
“I could think of a million ways to raise money without a pandemic, but I could not think of any way to raise money for a service dog during a pandemic,” he said.
His college roommate came to the rescue, spreading the word about the online fundraising effort.
“We raised the full $25,000 in two weeks, which was just incredible,” Demeule said.
The COVID-19 crisis has been a frightening time for Demeule, who has severe asthma from his disability and is at grave risk.
But suddenly he had hope again, he said.
Last summer, he got the call from ECAD and in the fall, he traveled to Connecticut to meet Advocate. They spent a week training together, and Demeule knew he had found his new partner.
“We work well together,” he said. “You just kind of know.”
It’s been a bit challenging, getting used to a young dog after spending so many years with Sprinkles.
“You forget that you’re building a new relationship,” he said. “The dog’s not going to understand the way you do things right away, and you’re not going to understand what the dog needs right away. I had to retrain myself again.”
In addition to his work at SNHU, Demeule’s passions include martial arts and acting. He’s a “specialty performer,” he said.
What does that mean? “Try finding another disabled Asian kid with a service dog,” he deadpanned. “You’re not going to.”
His disability doesn’t prevent him from doing what he wants, he said.
“Now I don’t see it as the thing that handicaps me, I see it as this huge challenge that I have to take on,” he said.
“I am at the point in my life where I don’t worry about failure. I don’t worry about how many times it’s going to take me to get something,” he said. “I know if I commit to it, I’m disciplined enough to stick to it.”
“The dogs were a big help in making me realize that.”