Something was wrong with Danny Mangold, but nobody seemed to know what. At 6 months, he couldn't hold up his head. He couldn't sit up straight. He couldn't eat solid foods. And for years, doctors couldn't figure out how to help him.
But where the medical profession was baffled, a 1-year-old dog named Saki wasn't. The awkward little boy and the German shepherd who kept running away to be with him formed an unlikely bond, one that surmounted every effort to keep them apart.
And one that ultimately is being credited with boosting Danny's confidence, even his speech and coordination.
"It's an amazing thing, but I believe Saki really has made a difference in Danny," said the boy's mother, Dixie Morgan, 43, a high school English teacher. "Danny has made great strides, and we hadn't seen that kind of physical and social development before."
Observers outside the family were just as impressed by the effect the dog has had on Danny in the few months they have known each other.
The unusual story of a boy and a dog began when Morgan and her then-husband, Dan Mangold, a Florida boat captain, decided to adopt a child. Danny's biological father, an illiterate, 17-year-old single parent, couldn't afford to support his son and offered the 6-month-old to the Mangolds, who knew of the teen through friends.
The couple noticed that while their new son beamed with a constant smile, things came harder and slower for him. With time, Danny learned to talk, but much of it was babble. He learned to crawl. Then walk. Then run. But everything was difficult.
"It's frustrating because every parent hopes her child will excel," Morgan said. "So we coached him, we urged him, we encouraged him. But we knew from the first time we met him that he had problems."
Morgan took Danny to hospitals and diagnostic clinics in Florida to see if there was anything she could do to help her son. The doctors told her that Danny didn't fit into any one category. Although he didn't have cerebral palsy, his motor skills lagged. Though he didn't have autism, he couldn't communicate or relate well.
When Danny was a little over a year old, he was placed in a program for children with special education needs. His development progressed, but by age 5, he still wasn't toilet trained, couldn't speak in complete sentences and had trouble forming friendships with classmates.
After Morgan and her ex-husband split, she moved to Ojai and married her high school sweetheart, a ceramist who quickly became devoted to Danny and his two adopted siblings, now 6 and 11.
Meanwhile, Saki's path to Danny was not a direct one.
The puppy was living on the streets in Sacramento when a woman found her and was immediately impressed by her intelligence and energy. Determined to find her a good home, she took notice of a short video about the Ojai-based National Disaster Search Dog Foundation. She decided that would be a perfect place for Saki.
In addition to being bold and determined, Saki had an excellent sense of smell, necessary when searching for survivors in collapsed buildings.
So Saki was taken to Ojai, where she was placed with a family during the preliminary training period.
But the dog proved less interested in her training than the neighborhood children. She began escaping across the street, where a little boy with bouncing blond curls lived.
Instantly, Danny and Saki clicked. Day after day, Saki sneaked out to see him. They ran and played catch. They watched TV together, took naps together, at least until Saki's caretaker came for her. The woman felt so badly about taking the dog away that she once got teary-eyed.
"I was touched by the way Saki and Danny connected," Morgan said. "Socially, he doesn't always interact effectively with his peers. But he did with the dog. Saki understood him. They understood each other."
Then something completely unexpected happened. Within a week, Morgan said, Danny's speech improved. He started forming complete sentences. His favorites were, "This is my puppy" and "I am Saki's dad."
At first, Morgan thought it was just a coincidence. She was skeptical that the change she was seeing in Danny could be caused by an animal. But the more time Danny spent with Saki, the more milestones he met. He learned to throw a ball straight. He started using the toilet.
"I didn't want to mystify it, I didn't want to anthropomorphize the dog," said Danny's mother, a no-nonsense woman with short, sandy hair. "I didn't want to credit a dog with toilet training. But Saki really seems to have had an impact on Danny."
Boy's Best Friend
The relationship between Danny and Saki doesn't surprise Beverly Sigafoos, executive director of Canine Support Teams Inc., which places trained dogs with disabled people. In addition to opening and closing doors, turning on and off lights and retrieving items, the dogs support their disabled owners emotionally.
"The canine has always been called man's best friend, and there is a reason for that," Sigafoos said. "We bond with them because they accept us unconditionally. They wag their tails, they are glad to see us, they are there for us."
Morgan finally asked the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation if she could adopt the dog. Even though she hadn't considered getting a dog, Morgan knew that Danny would be devastated to see Saki leave.
Wilma Melville, president of the Ojai-based foundation, was reluctant to give up the dog. Foundation volunteers often test 40 to 50 dogs before they find one capable of being a rescue dog, she said. And Saki was perfect. This November, Saki was slated to start a six-month training program in Gilroy.
But after visiting and watching Danny and Saki together, Melville reluctantly decided to let Saki stay with the Morgans.
"To let the dog go, it was not easy," she said. "But we decided that the dog had a real use here. She and Danny made a very heartwarming attachment."
Today, 5-year-old Danny takes care of Saki full time, brushing her hair, feeding her, placing a pillow under her head at night. When Danny leaves for preschool, Saki hides under the bed and refuses to come out until he returns.
Danny's older sister, Cecily Morgan, 11, calls them soul mates.
"Saki's always kinda been there for Danny," she said. "You know how a butterfly can't live without its wings? That's how it is for them."
On a recent afternoon, Danny threw a green rubber ball across the yard and yelled, "Go Saki! Go!" Saki fetched it.
When Saki turned on her stomach and panted, Danny fell to the ground and imitated her. When Saki went to lap up her water, Danny took a paper cup and got a drink out of her bowl. And when Saki barked, Danny said, "Woof woof."