What Is a Labradoodle Doing in This Catholic School Yearbook?

A 7-year-old and her service dog were featured side by side in the yearbook of St. Patrick Catholic School in Louisville, Kentucky, highlighting a message of kindness and inclusion.

Hadley Jo Lange and her faithful service dog, Ariel, are the best of friends.
Hadley Jo Lange and her faithful service dog, Ariel, are the best of friends. (photo: Courtesy of Heather Lange)

A sweet story recently got my attention — maybe you saw it, too: A 7-year-old and her service dog were featured side by side in the yearbook of St. Patrick Catholic School in Louisville, Kentucky.

I spoke this week with Hadley Jo Lange’s mother, Heather, about the special bond her daughter has with her faithful labradoodle, Ariel, who has assisted Hadley, who has epilepsy, for the past four years.

Ariel is always on guard to alert Heather and the Lange family when Hadley experiences a seizure.

Heather says she is “beyond grateful” for the presence of Ariel in their family. “She really does save my daughter’s life,” aptly describing her as “my daughter’s lifeline.”

Stress is often a trigger for Hadley’s seizures. That’s when Ariel responds and “alerts,” Heather explained. The service dog moves around, shows anxiety and barks to convey a message of “Help me” in order to help Hadley, who sometimes has several seizures a day; other times, her seizures may be spaced out by weeks at a time.

Ariel is always happily by Hadley’s side, even amid medical ordeals.

“How do I ever thank this dog?” Heather told me. “Ariel has a unique bond with Hadley Jo that she doesn’t have with anyone else.”

Ariel, who is the only service dog at a Catholic school in the Archdiocese of Louisville, provides ample support for Hadley by watching over her, giving her parents peace of mind.

Heather worked with a service-dog training organization, Ultimate Canine, to make sure that the dog was well trained to be in the classroom to assist Hadley, with the blessing of the school principal and assistance of school staff.

“This dog is so highly trained; with special areas in the classroom, no one knows she’s there,” Heather said, adding that it means so much that people will listen and accommodate a need like this. “The more people understand, the more willing they are to help you.”

Heather is committed to educating others, especially families, about the vital need specially trained service dogs provide and showing them that if it has worked well for their family, it can work for others, too.

The need for a service dog for Hadley became apparent when a stranger’s service dog alerted the Lange family to a seizure when Hadley was just 2 years old.

Afterward, Heather, a nurse practitioner, looked into the possibility of a service dog for Hadley. “I was a desperate mother desperate for answers,” she explained of her quest that involved much research. Labradoodles like Ariel are known to gravitate toward children; they are also known for being friendly and approachable. In addition, they are non-shedding and hypoallergenic.

Heather attributes her family’s story to the workings of the Holy Spirit and feels blessed to share their story.

“I really do believe this was God’s plan: that he gave us this disease to do something good with it.”

Now, Hadley Jo and Ariel are ambassadors of goodness, highlighting a message of inclusiveness.

“I love the message of inclusiveness. Not everyone looks the same, learns the same,” Heather explained. “Our school has chosen to allow my daughter to bring her dog to school — to be part of the class, the school — and made efforts to include her in St. Patrick’s family.”

Inclusiveness is a “big, powerful word. My message is: Look at this school — the inclusion, kindness and compassion. Other schools can do this, too.”

“As a person of faith, the Catholic faith and values are important to my husband and me; we were raised in the faith and Catholic schools, and we want that for our children.”

She continued, “Faith has given me a sense of security and hope. When you do experience a crisis, you’re not alone. You may feel alone, but you’re not alone. God is there.”

Heather said the world has a need for good messages right now and recognizes that this story has been “so comforting to so many people,” adding that it’s a “time for good news.” She is grateful it is striking a chord globally on so many levels, “not just ‘How cute?’— it’s a message that needs to be shared.”

She emphasized, “The yearbook photo is a sign of God’s love, compassion and inclusion: a simple act of kindness — how beautiful is that?”

For Hadley Jo, her “youthful heart” is apparent, too, according to her mom. Once, when seeing their story featured on TV, Hadley looked at Ariel and said, “Look at this: You’re famous.”

Ever a constant companion, Ariel continues to be by Hadley’s side. Since home schooling amid the pandemic, Ariel has been “right there with her,” Heather related. Like always.

Most of all, despite her medical concerns, Hadley Jo is “the happiest kid,” her mom says, “who brings so much joy to us.”