When Michael Giannetti met Michael Orange, a father of five, three diagnosed with cerebral palsy, he knew he had to help.
"I don't have any special-needs children," said Giannetti. "But I knew I could do something."
Cerebral palsy is an umbrella term applied to a group of non-progressive, non-contagious motor conditions that cause physical disability in human development. The three children affected have limited motor movement and posture. One is prone to epileptic seizures.
Giannetti, owner of Pendragon Acres U.S. K-9 Inc. in Brooksville, was inspired by Orange's story. He'd worked with special-needs children before, partnering several of his world-famous German shepherds with children that required exceptional service and protection.
He knew that the benefits of a special service canine streamed well beyond the physical. He'd heard countless stories about children with autism, Down Syndrome and other neurological disorders who typically withdraw but who suddenly broke free, at least when the canines are present.
The dogs bring them out of their shell, he said.
So he gave the Hernando County family their pick of an 8-week-old pup from a litter of nine, a $5,000 value. The pup was then evaluated and analyzed for compatibility with the family.
"He did very well with them," Giannetti said. One of the children actually lifted her head when the puppy was in the room and had a smile on her face. "I almost cried. He said she'd never done that before."
The puppy would be trained as a full-service canine with skills to monitor the children, act as a protector and alert authorities should one of them require emergency intervention.
But training for a full special service canine isn't cheap. "It runs about $35,000," Giannetti said, which is less than half of what Pendragon used to charge for the same intense training just four years ago.
While more affordable than ever before, the price of the training was still way beyond the Oranges' capacity on a Publix salary. But Giannetti had a plan.
Pendragon Acres U.S. K-9 Inc. recently signed a two-year commitment along with Dion De Lauder, the producer and CEO of the Florida Combat Network, CBS Radio 98.7 The Fan, and Channel 10/10 Action Sports, to sponsor and market Mixed Martial Arts Showcases both nationally and internationally.
Pendragon's portion of the money raised at these events, 30 percent of each event's proceeds, would be used to pay for the training for chosen families.
A recent MMA Showcase was held on Oct. 19 at the Doubletree Hilton in Tampa and combined 11 bouts of cage fighting in mixed martial arts. Many of the fighters had impressive records. Most would go on to compete at the professional level.
Sean "The Nightmare" Hollis, a belt-holder and one of Pendragon's four sponsored fighters, attended the event with his wife. Hollis was an undefeated MMA amateur and is now an undefeated pro MMA fighter. Hollis owns a Pendragon canine.
The Pendragon compound tucked away in rural Hernando County is designed specifically for breeding, raising, and training their top-quality German shepherds.
"It is a family business," Giannetti said. "My wife, my daughters and my son are all involved."
Giannetti grew up in the business. "I've had shepherds all my life," he said. "I don't have a conscious moment when I didn't have a German shepherd by my side. They are the most unique creatures on this earth. That's why I only do German shepherds."
Giannetti said he makes a comfortable living. But it's his passion for the canines and how they can help provide a better quality of life for special-needs children that brings him his greatest joy.
"You see the kids and you want to help them all," he said. "Of course you can't. But you can bring some awareness. That's what we are trying to do."
In the tri-county area alone there are more than 16,000 children with autism and Down Syndrome, he said.
"We want to wake up the people to how many children are in need," Giannetti said.
Pendragon Acres U.S. K-9 Inc. has been making a big difference in the lives of many by bringing families and quality canines together.
"My canines are all over," Giannetti said. "And there are a lot of stories about Pendragon, some not so big. But it's all related. And it's all for the children.
"We now have a selection of puppies and young trained adults available," Giannetti said. "And two litters on the way from our signature series line."