The Paw-fect Match
Teague Niebrugge loved baseball cards, Harry Potter, and knock-knock jokes. Most of all he loved his service dog and best friend, Berlin. The Niebrugges recently founded Berlin’s Buddies in their son’s memory, with the goal of blessing other children with service dogs just as they were blessed.
Searching for a Best Friend
“Berlin was the single best thing we did as parents to impact Teague’s life,” says Teague’s mom, Joey. But the journey to bring Teague and Berlin together was far from easy.
Growing up on a ranch, Teague was deeply connected to animals and decided in second grade that he wanted a service dog. He had lost his vision at age five, in what seemed at the time to be an unexplained fluke. Very few organizations place service dogs with children, but the Niebrugges found one that did, and Teague began a long training and qualification process.
Then Teague started to struggle academically and behaviorally. The summer after fifth grade he had a seizure. He was eventually diagnosed with Batten Disease, a rare, incurable neurodegenerative disorder.
Because of Teague’s terminal diagnosis, the service dog organization removed him from their program just a few months before he was set to be matched with a dog. Another organization also turned him down. A third one accepted him, but the wait to get a dog would take years. “We were crushed,” recalls Joey.
That very day she saw a friend’s Facebook post about a local organization, Azani Pro Service Dogs. Owner Maddy Thomas had never trained a dog for a blind person, but she was confident they could do it. “Without her willingness to say yes to training a dog for a medically complex child, we would not have Berlin,” says Joey.
Buddies for Life
Berlin is a standard poodle, not the breed Joey had in mind. Maddy encouraged them to at least do a meet-and-greet, and Berlin’s calm, loving personality won them over.
During their training together, Berlin learned to accompany Teague everywhere—school busses, classrooms, doctor’s appointments, even fast-food restaurants. He also learned wheelchair assistance and seizure alert skills. The dog became a full-fledged part of the family in February 2020. A month later Covid-19 hit. “Teague’s world got so much smaller,” says Joey. “Berlin was his whole world.”
The idea for Berlin’s Buddies came to Joey late one night in November 2021, near the end of Teague’s life. “He could no longer talk, but he kept his hand on Berlin, who was always stretched out beside him in bed,” she says. “It felt right to try and help other kids find that same joy and peace, and to continue to spread a little of Teague around.”
Sharing the Blessings
Teague was a happy, adventurous kid, and his life was filled with many moments of grace. There was the doctor who helped them bypass the nine-month wait to see a pediatric neurologist, then the perfect timing of their contact with Maddy Thomas of Azani. Teague and his family even got to fulfill his dream of visiting The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, thanks to a fundraising effort at the University of Tennessee Health Sciences Center where his cousin was a dentistry resident. “So many things happened in his life that we couldn’t have orchestrated if we tried,” says Joey. “We recognize that, and we feel blessed and grateful.” Through Berlin’s Buddies, they hope to give back some of what they’ve received.
The Perfect Match
Berlin’s Buddies has one dog about to be matched, named Potter, and another in training named Weasley. The organization welcomes applications from any child in need of a service dog and funds half the cost of training. Donations are welcome but are not tax-deductible at this time. Maddy Thomas of Azani provides the training and evaluates the scholarship recipients—the Niebrugges are not involved in the selection.
Like his human family, Berlin continues to bless others even as he mourns Teague. He has retrained as a therapy dog and delights in offering unconditional love to everyone he meets at local hospitals, homeless shelters, and children’s group homes.
“This is not a story we would have chosen to be a part of,” says Joey, “but we do the best we can to help others and move forward. We’ve had a lot of help along the way. We hope to honor Teague but also honor Berlin for the impact he’s had.”