TERRE HAUTE —
The family of a Terre Haute boy with autism hopes that a service dog will keep its son safe while allowing him to participate in daily activities like other children his age.
Seven-year-old Levi Walker is seeking a service dog from 4 Paws For Ability, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to place quality service dogs together with children with disabilities and veterans who have lost use of limbs or hearing.
The Walker family has committed to raising $13,000 to receive a 4 Paws dog trained especially for Levi, and its first fundraiser is coming up on Nov. 20. From 6 to 9 p.m. that evening, 50 percent of admissions to the Bouncing Barn at 2509 S. First St., will go to 4 Paws for Ability.
Admission is $5 for children ages 2 to 12.
Amy Walker now homeschools her son, who has autism, periventricular leukomalacia and a deletion on chromosome 15 — which can cause attention issues, impulsiveness, expressive language delays, low muscle tone and a higher chance of seizures.
Levi has no verbal communication, but is active in many ways. He likes to run, watch television, jump on his trampoline and “read” the phone book. But he also has “Houdini” skills when it comes to vanishing.
“He could bolt at any moment,” Amy said of Levi. “My stress level is high because I’m always wondering if he’s gonna bolt.”
Already, the family is on its third type of locks at home, because Levi has figured out how to open earlier locks. They now use combination locks that he hasn’t yet mastered. Levi has a history of getting out of the family home, even though all the doors and windows are locked and the yard is gated. And that has Amy and her husband, Chris, who works for the Vigo County School Corp., worried that the youngster will get into one of the many ponds or lakes near their property in rural Vigo County.
They are also worried that now that he is older, bigger and harder to handle in public, he can pull away from his family and dart into traffic or another dangerous situation.
“Our son is getting to the point where he wants to be more independent, and in seeking ways to support that and keep him safe, I had seen service dogs for other children, and I wondered if that would be an option for Levi,” Amy told the Tribune-Star.
Amy works from home for an agency called About Special Kids, connecting families with resources to help them and their special needs children. So to help her own family, she searched online for autism service dogs and found the 4Paws For Ability program online.
After learning about how the dogs are training and reading testimonials from others who have a 4 Paws service dog, Amy said she felt the program would work for Levi. But she was concerned about the cost.
A 4 Paws service dog costs $22,000 to raise and train. The recipient family is asked to contribute more than half of that cost.
“At first, the $13,000 fundraising requirement was really overwhelming to me, so I kind of backed away from it for a few days,” Amy said, who then ran into some emotionally and physically exhausting days with her son when his behavior included self-injury and meltdowns.
“It took a couple of really rough days with Levi, and then I thought that if he had a service dog it could go up and comfort him. So I picked the information back up and decided we have to do it for him.”
A special advantage of a 4 Paws service dog is that the animal will learn to track its companion. So, if Levi wanders off, the canine will be able to find him.
Levi already enjoys interacting with large dogs, and many autistic children partnered with trained canines display calmer behavior and progress in their speech and development, Amy said.
“We do what we can to keep him safe, but there’s always the chance someone will come and leave the door open, or he will figure out the locks,” she said.
“He is making progress all the time. There’s no way of knowing what his potential is. So having the service dog in public tethered to him, with me holding the other leash, will allow him to go out in public and be safe,” she said.
The 4Paws dogs are training to spot a child’s behavioral disruption and then take action to calm the child down, such as putting a paw on the child’s foot or lying down next to a child having a fit. The presence of the animal, who becomes a trusted companion, can calm a child. Amy explained that autistic children sometimes don’t respond well to the intentional calming or soothing touch of a parent or caregiver, instead becoming more agitated.
“If he’s acting up, the dog will know what to do,” Amy said. “Levi will bite his own hand. He is nonverbal, so he has no consistent way to communicate. When we try to block him from biting himself, it just causes him to get worse.”
As part of their commitment to the program, the Walkers will also be videotaping some of Levi’s behavior and submitting it to 4Paws, which is located in Xenia, Ohio. The trainers will re-enact Levi’s behavior as part of the canine training so the dog will know what to do.
The family also will have to go through intensive training with Levi and his autism service dog, and they will do annual updates in training.
Amy said her family has already created a Facebook page to keep the public updated on fundraisers and progress of the 4 Paws project for Levi. The Facebook page is called 4 Paws for Levi.
Another upcoming fundraiser will be a chili supper that is in the planning stages. Amy said she hopes to have T-shirts printed to sell in support of Levi and 4 Paws.
Anyone wanting to help with a tax-deductible donation, can visit 4 Paws Donation Page at www.4PawsForAbility.org/donate-now, or go to www.firstgiving.com/fundraiser/awalker1979/4pawsforlevi or mail a check with Levi Walker’s name on the memo line to 4 Paws for Ability, In Honor of Levi Walker, 253 Dayton Ave, Xenia, OH 45385. Amy can also be contacted via email at email@example.com.
Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at 812-231-4254 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @TribStarLisa.