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For several years, student bullying and teachers not understanding her medical disability have been facts of life for 15-year-old Savanna Michalak of Bridgewater, New Jersey. But thanks to “Hawk” (CGCA CGCU TKN ATT BCAT), a 4-year-old Australian Shepherd and the community she’s built through dog sports, Savanna has a newfound a confidence she brings to the rest of her life.

Overcoming Bullying at School

Savanna was born with an eye condition, which her ophthalmologist diagnosed as right intermittent exotropia. She’ll live with the disorder for the rest of her life. “My eye would wander off to the side without me knowing and without me being able to control it,” she explains.

She’s undergone four surgeries, the first when she was 4 years old. Throughout her childhood, she’d have to wear countless eye patches in attempts to combat the matter. Unfortunately, classmates would bully her and tease her because her eyes were “different.” Eventually, Savanna began to fear participating in class and began to receive lower grades because she couldn’t participate in the classroom the same way as her peers.

Melissa Michalak

Savanna experiences eye strain, which often leads to vomiting and migraine headaches. It wasn’t until the current school year that her teachers understood the complexity of her eye condition. “I may be able to look at a video online for a few minutes one day in class, but the next I can’t,” she explains. “Fortunately, I now have a school counselor who understands the condition, accommodates my needs and alters certain assignments,” she adds.

Difficulties in the Classroom

“When I was asked to speak to the class, my eyes were unable to follow the lines in correct order,” she says. “My eyes would often skip words, lines and jump around. My classmates would point at me and laugh while I was reading. When I finished, I would often go to the bathroom to hide and cry.”

The COVID-19 pandemic brought even more challenges. Savanna couldn’t effectively participate in online learning, which meant her parents scheduled teachers to come to the family home for instruction. Because these were new teachers for Savanna, her parents had to repeatedly explain her disability to them.

“As Savanna’s parents, we knew she would face struggles after the four surgeries, yet we did not know the complexity of it,” adds Savanna’s mother, Melissa Michalak. “We were unaware that so much of the school environment involved online training. Whether that be computers or projectors, we didn’t understand the severity of the migraines due to her eyes. Gone are the days of using pencil and paper, and this was a fight with the school system to bring them back to meet her needs.”

Finding Connection Through Dog Sports

Several years ago, Savanna’s parents bought her a mixed-breed dog with hopes it would take her mind off the bullying and focus her emotions in a more positive direction. She soon became involved in a local 4H club, “Little Woofers,” and began competing in obedience and AKC Rally.

After her success in those sports, she began showing a Newfoundland while being mentored by professional handler Vesta Rash of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. But she eventually recognized this wasn’t the breed for her. Enter the Australian Shepherd. “I love this breed because of its variety,” she says. “Every Australian Shepherd has a personality of its own and an incredible desire to please.”

Meyer Photography

In 2022, after mentoring Savanna for a couple of years, Rash reached out to Jessica Ploude and Terri Collins of “Collinswood Australian Shepherds” in Auburn, Massachusetts, about finding the “right dog” for the teen. The 2-year-old Hawk was co-owned by Collins and his other breeder, Clare Cox, who agreed to bring Savanna on board on the ownership team after a lengthy period of research and interviews about the junior’s track record and commitment to conformation.

“We were both excited that Savanna expressed a huge desire to show Hawk in the breed, owner-handler, and Junior rings,” Collins recalls. “Hawk needed a girl of his own. He is such a sweet, loving boy but sought to be the center of attention all of the time. Turns out, he was the perfect fit for Savanna and has blossomed into her perfect boy.”

Building a Bond with Hawk

Hawk came into Savanna’s life at just the right time, soon after she reached a point when she dipped to a mental low. The pair quickly began training daily, building a bond and an emotional buoyancy that has segued seamlessly into the show ring.

“Having the one-on-one time with Hawk during his weekly grooming, training and reading (she reads to him daily) forged their relationship,” says Melissa. “Sleeping in bed with Savanna, getting up together before school and having Hawk waiting at the door for her when she comes home from school has grown that bond. Hawk has also helped remove her from isolation and given her the strength and confidence to interact with others in public.”

Melissa Michalak

“Reading or talking to Hawk is my form of therapy. I can do so without him judging me. He may give me a few licks or paw me for attention. He will keep handing me his paw until I pet him, but hey, at least then I know he’s paying attention,” Savanna adds. “If I’m stressed, he can feel it, especially if I am holding his lead too tight. When that happens, he looks at me a certain way and I know that I need to make adjustments.”

Fitting Perfectly Into Her Life

Hawk and Savanna are inseparable. Hawk will chew his feet if she isn’t around and often refuses to leave her bedroom. When a friend enters the home, he sounds off. “You would think he was a 100-pound watchdog, not a ball of fluff,” Savanna laughs.

In addition to her daily responsibilities with Hawk, she is a member of her high-school soccer team. As a result, she travels to shows around her family’s schedule. The teen has two particularly memorable wins: Best Junior Handler at the Kennel Club of Philadelphia last November and a month later Owner-Handler Reserve Best in Show at the 2023 AKC National Championship in Orlando, Florida, judged by AKC CEO Dennis Sprung.

Savanna doesn’t keep count of her Junior wins. “Showing dogs is my passion, but not my life. It is very challenging to compete against Juniors who are homeschooled and travel with mentors each weekend,” she explains. “Showing in Juniors can be stressful because I alter my body position often due to having no peripheral vision and need to see where the judge is standing inside the ring. Sometimes if I feel that my eye is wandering, I have to be more hands-on, which a judge may frown upon. That may require an extra second to stack my dog if I am feeling stressed and my eye wanders.”

Stephanie Hayes ©AKC

The teen lavishes praise on her three mentors’ advice, leadership and support. Chief among the skills she’s learned is sportsmanship — “which involves a smile, a hug or a handshake win or lose,” she adds. They would never hold anything back and always tell her the truth, she emphasizes. “There were days I heard, ‘Hey, kid, what was that?’ Or ‘Wow, she really is listening.'”

And Collins’ role extends far beyond mentoring. She has become a “second mom” to Savanna and one of her biggest cheerleaders. “She is an amazing young woman with the drive to stick with this sport and do well. Her bond with Hawk is such a heartwarming sight,” says Collins.