Note: Levi is a seven-month-old Lab being owner-trained by his family as a service dog for seven-year-old Micah. Read his mom, Nicole’s first post here and learn a little about the family on our contributor page.
Firsts in life are always learning experiences. Rarely do we get something perfect on the first try and the same applies to service dogs. Levi is only 7 months old and there have been so many firsts for this boy that I imagine it must be overwhelming. With some of these firsts, Levi has done astonishingly well. Others, we will continue to practice.
The first time Micah had a meltdown with Levi present, we were all amazed at Levi’s reaction. A meltdown is not a tantrum, he has those from time to time but a meltdown is different. A meltdown is when a person with special needs is so overwhelmed by an experience, their body, their surroundings, someone else’s actions, their own actions, or sensory input that they are incapable of maintaining control of their emotions, body and/or actions. For many, a meltdown brings a visible change to their countenance, especially their eyes. Micah’s meltdowns can be frightening; they are often loud, angry, physical and out of control or he can become reclusive, hide and shut down. The first one for Levi was huge and incredibly loud. We expected Levi to be terrified, to run away, to hide, to cower or bark and get anxious. He did none of these things. He saw that his boy was struggling and he amidst the turmoil, he walked right up to Micah, put a paw on him and started licking him. Micah put his arms around Levi’s neck, hugged him close and began to relax enough for us to get him back on track. We are in awe. How could this incredibly young puppy even know yet that his job was to support Micah, to help him through these episodes? Levi had already learned that he was here for a reason.
Other firsts, like his first bath, were not so great. Micah and I took Levi to a local pet store with a self-serve wash option. Levi was less than thrilled at the idea of being soaked and soaped and not being allowed to play in the water. Keeping him still was impossible and washing off the shampoo was a Sisyphean task. Every time we thought we had it all, we would discover another area needing to be rinsed. We would rinse and rinse and rinse and the soap seemed to be coming back like the flame on a trick candle. All the while, Levi struggled to get loose, shook and soaked us and romped in the water. This time, the learning was for us. Baths required two adults and a child.
Levi’s first trip to baseball practice was interesting. He wanted to see, smell and eat everything. He tried to eat several pieces of ABC gum*, candy wrappers, sticks, rocks, pretty much anything he could get his muzzle on. However, he did not even try to touch a baseball. He found another dog’s forgotten tennis ball and went to town but when a foul ball rolled by, he barely gave it a passing glance. He did astoundingly well ignoring other children, even as they yelled and ran around. He did jump in our laps, steal our chairs and get a little crazy, but overall, not too bad. We learned to keep a shorter leash to avoid a gum popping pup and that when he is overstimulated, a nice walk around the outside of the field works wonders. Levi learned to ignore crazy kids and that gum really does not taste that great.
Interestingly, Levi has been phenomenal at baseball lessons, which are indoor. He has ignored other kids, many errant balls, shouting, the sound of a ball hitting a bat with the indoor echo, the slap of a fastball on a glove and other distractions. During one lesson, there was a kindergartener waiting for her brother to be done with his lesson. She was supposed to be reading to her mother for homework. She was adamantly refusing to do so but was asking all about Levi. I explained his job and why she could not pet him and she told me about her dog. She was still refusing to read to her mother so I told her that Levi really loves it when kids read books to him. She said, “Well, I think I could do that for him, but NOT for my parents!” She read her book to Levi who sat politely and listened. I told the little girl that there are some dogs whose job is to listen to kids read. She was amazed that dogs could have so many different jobs. I suggested she try reading to her dog whenever she had reading homework. She liked the idea and Levi learned that it is sometimes ok to listen to someone else read.
Levi has had too many firsts to enumerate but two more that stand out are his first time going to the doctor with Micah and his first martial arts class. Dee came with us to help with Levi for both successful firsts. The doctor’s visit had a few moments where Levi was a puppy but for the most part, he remembered that he was a service dog in training. His biggest challenge was the waiting room which was huge and filled with children. One toddler came and plopped herself about three feet from Levi and started talking to him. Levi was so excited that his rear end wiggled and he could not stay sitting. Dee redirected Levi and he did great in the exam room. He stayed tucked under Dee’s chair while the doctor was examining Micah and then loved on Micah while the adults discussed Micah’s upcoming surgery. Overall, I call it a success.
Martial arts class was also successful – far more than I thought it was going to be. Micah and I do a martial art, called Cuong Nhu, together. Levi, Dee and Heather came to an afternoon kids’ class where I teach and Micah attends. It is unbelievably loud with at least three different classes of different ages and ranks going on at one time. The dojo is somewhat small and the acoustics and fluorescent lights can be a bit much for adults, so for Micah, it gets to be too much sometimes. Levi handled it like a champ. He was well behaved and focused for the majority of the time. He did well ignoring most of the other children, even if they were pushy and obnoxious. Soon, our family will be attending the International Annual Training Camp for Cuong Nhu in Chapel Hill and Levi will travel there with us. In preparation, we knew that Levi would have to become accustomed to the sights and sounds of martial arts. Specifically, we wanted to introduce him to the sounds of bo staffs (5-6’ sticks) hitting each other. After the kids’ class, the lead instructor and I did some bo applications in which we are hitting and blocking with the sticks. It is loud and intimidating to be around swinging sticks. Levi was not fazed at all. Another great first.
We have many more firsts to come and we are confident, with Dee by our side, we will have far more wins than fails. We see how much Levi is helping our boy, so even if we have a hundred fails, we will gratefully accept one win.