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Santa Rosa family surprised with drive-by graduation party for service dog

Festooned in matching purple mortarboards to recognize Casper the service dog’s convocation, the 2-year-old yellow lab and his new companion, 5-year-old Max Stiles, were reunited Sunday on a northwest Santa Rosa driveway during a surprise drive-by graduation party.

A “Congrats Grad!” decoration that hung across the family’s garage door acted as a backdrop to a tearful moment that certified the two would be companions from the cloudless sun-splashed day forward.

Once Casper was led over to the family and the line of cars began rolling down the quiet street with honks and shouts of “Congratulations,” Max, who has a neurological speech disorder, became animated. A camouflage face mask hid his smile as he waived back while seated on his mother Desiree’s knee and greeted some familiar faces — human and canine — during their distanced, coronavirus-safe visit.

“It’s great for the family. We love him and we just created a bond with him over the last two years, basically since he was born,” James Stiles said of Casper, while Max knelt next to the prized pup. “It’s awesome for us to have this finalized.”

Max and Casper, who was one of a litter of nine born on Halloween 2018, developed an almost instant connection, said Michelle Chastain, a speech pathologist who also raises and trains service dogs for Forestville nonprofit Paws As Loving Support, or PALS. She noticed the difference between Max’s progress was night and day when he was around Casper, and encouraged his parents to apply to the program to help him overcome some of his anxiety and trouble with articulating words.

“The self-confidence has been amazing,” Chastain said.

Max is of course no stranger to excitement. With the help of three Santa Rosa firefighters who happened into the right place at the right time, the family’s third son was born in the passenger seat of the family SUV inside a retail parking lot after Desiree’s water broke and they were unable to make it to the hospital.

Fire engineer Jaimie Harcos, who helped Max take his first breath that August 2015 morning, attended Sunday’s commencement, handing Casper’s purple leash over to the boy he helped bring into the world. The 14-year veteran of the department said Max’s unexpected birth remains one of the more remarkable service calls of his career.

“When someone asks me about memorable or unique calls that I’ve been on, this is one of the first ones that comes to mind,” Harcos said of his only baby delivery. “It’s great to be able to see this and I’m really happy for Max to be able to have Casper.”

Fresh off another call, Santa Rosa Fire Engine 3, with its lights flashing and sirens blaring, concluded the celebratory procession Sunday. Konstantin Zherebnenkov, another of the firefighters there when Max was born, was behind the wheel.

“What a great surprise,” said Desiree Stiles. “Today’s pretty exciting. It felt like it wasn’t going to happen because of the many emergencies we’ve dealt with over this last year. But to us it’s just the start of another chapter. He’s graduated and him and Max are going to have many years together.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

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