Meet Noah. At 12 years old, he’s your typical pre-teen. He stays up late, goes to school, takes piano and horseback riding lessons, probably sasses his mom from time to time, and until last November, he really wanted a dog.
For the average kid Noah’s age, getting a dog just means convincing Mom or Dad that it’s a good idea, and pro-o-omising to be responsible; but for him, it wasn’t that simple. Noah was born with a disability called cerebral palsy, which mostly impacts his balance and lower body muscle control and tone, making mobility a challenge. Noah said, “[My life] isn’t that much different from my classmates – it’s just harder for me to get around.” When it came to getting a dog, it meant that he needed to find one that would understand his need to not be jumped on, charged at, or even bumped. Noah’s mom, Linda, was at a loss as to how she could make that happen.
In early 2011, Noah and Linda heard about Canine Companions for Independence from Noah’s physical therapist, and it didn’t take long for them to decide that it was the right way to go. The interview process and waiting period can be long and intense, and organizations such as CCI are selective about accepting applicants because of the large number of applications they receive. When I asked Noah what it was like, he said, “We drove down [to CCI on Long Island] and learned some basic commands, like sit and down. Then they asked what kind of dog I wanted, and I said that I wanted one that was playful, but not too wild. We were really nervous about getting into Team Training, but we did!”
Waiting periods for Service Dogs depend on a lot of factors, such as the level of need of the recipient, the number of accepted applicants already in the queue, and the number of dogs that are on track to graduate. Noah was told it could take up to two years, but he was excited to get a call from CCI just six months or so after he applied.
Last November, Noah and Linda spent two weeks in Team Training at CCI’s facility on Long Island, where they learned all kinds of important things about dogs, including canine learning theory, how dogs behave in the wild, how to keep them healthy and happy, and more than 40 commands. About four days into training, Noah was officially partnered with Happy, a 52-pound female purebred Yellow Lab. At the end of the course, they took two tests: one written and one practical. Nerves were high, but they passed with flying colors!
Now, nearly a year after their partnership began, Noah and Happy are a great duo. They go almost everywhere together, and the best part is that Noah has what he’s always wanted: a dog that could help him and wouldn’t accidentally cause him to fall. “The dog we had when Noah was small, he would try to lean on her when he needed help, but with Happy, he can be confident and trust that she’s there for him if he needs to get up off the floor and things like that. She has the ability to help him, so I think there’s a really special bond there…It’s very reassuring that he can really trust her,” Linda said. “It really brings me peace, knowing that he has a dog that’s the right fit for him.”
But with the joy and benefits of having a Service Dog also come responsibilities, both to care for the dog and also to educate the community. Linda told me about what it can be like to deal with business owners: “We just went to the beach in North Carolina, and we walked in to a pizza place and the guy started yelling at me, ‘No dogs allowed!’ and I tried to educate him on the ADA, and told him I had a card if he wanted to see it. He just had a knee-jerk reaction, seeing this four-legged thing, instead of really looking and being aware, so it was a really good opportunity to teach. Usually that happens at restaurants.” Noah’s advice about Service Dogs to the world is simple: “Always ask before you pet.”
In addition to all the help that Happy provides Noah, she’s his friend and playmate. For the first time in his life, he can be confident that his dog will enhance his physical safety, not work against it. She stays still enough for him to greet her when he gets home from school, and she snuggles up closely and carefully when it’s cuddle time. To anyone considering applying for a Service Dog, Noah imparts this wisdom: “It’s hard work and it takes awhile, but you’ll always get a good dog.”
Do you have more questions or anything to say to Noah and Happy? Leave them in the comments!