Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Service dog inspires boy with CP to give back

From the Pet Talk column in USA Today:

When Kiki entered the life of Adam Wolf, 10, (pictured) a boy with cerebral palsy who spends much of his time in a wheelchair, it was a great moment. The boy and his dog would hang out together, grow up side by side, share the special kind of communication that happens only between kids and their dogs.

This was to be more, however, than the usual bond that inevitably develops. This was to become a lesson about getting and then giving. A pay-it-forward story of the sweetest sort.

Adam and Kiki met a little over two years ago, soon after Adam's application for a service dog had been approved by Santa Rosa, Calif.-based Canine Companions for Independence, and he and mom Ali Wolf attended the two-week team-training session with other service dog recipients. The CCI instructors always have a strong idea before the people arrive which specially trained dog will be assigned to what person, but shifts must be sometimes made during the session to create perfect matches, so that possibility always exists.

Not in the case of Adam and Kiki, though. From the first day Adam met her, there was no other dog in the place as far as he was concerned. And Kiki apparently felt the same way. Their bond was instant and tight. Although service dogs are trained not to lick or kiss unless invited, Adam indicated kisses were welcome, and from that moment on, Kiki showed her affection dozens of times a day in the loving-dog way — kissing his cheek, his hand, his ear. It's a practice that, once the two returned home to Irvine, Calif., evolved into what the Wolf family calls "love fests," a special hug-and-kiss time on the floor when Adam and Kiki unleash their fondness for each other.

Bred for intelligence and sensitivity, trained to be responsive and helpful, Kiki, a jet-black Labrador retriever/golden retriever mix, quickly settled into the role of Adam's constant companion. She sleeps with him; picks up pencils and remote controls when he drops them; accompanies him everywhere but school; sticks like glue to his side, giving comfort, when Adam's dealing with one of his many medical procedures; and stays with him in the bathroom, leaving only when ordered to get Ali because he's finished in there.

And here's the thing. As much love and support as Adam grew up with as one of seven kids in a close-knit family, it took a big black dog with a sensitive brown eyes, a heart of gold and an unflagging desire to be by Adam's side day and night to cause Adam's sweet, giving nature to burst forth in even fuller, richer bloom.

For nearly two years Adam's been growing his hair, down to his shoulders now — even though it gets tangled in his wheelchair head pads and he's unable to reach up and disentangle it, even though he's often mistaken for a girl — to help another kid, a kid he's never met, a kid gone bald.

Later this week, he's getting his long hair cut to donate to Locks of Love, which makes wigs for children who have lost their hair from cancer treatments, trauma, burns or other conditions.

"I'm gonna get a buzz," he declared happily last week. It'll be a relief not to have to correct people who think he's a girl and not to have to endure the de-tangling jobs his mother performs. But, through it all, he never once thought about bailing on his vow to grow his hair for another kid, though, he adds, "My mom did!"

Adam's mom gives Kiki some of the credit for Adam's decision to do what he's done. The dog "taught him about the gift of giving."

Here's how the idea took root: Back in the spring of 2007, soon after he got Kiki, Adam was leaving from one of his many hospital visits, his dog at his side, when a boy wearing a mask to block germs because he was undergoing chemo treatments asked to pet her. For many years, children and adults had tended to avoid Adam, intimidated by his wheelchair. But KiKi, from Day One, was a conversation starter, and Adam was happy to share his dog and explain her place in his life. The two boys laughed and played until Adam had to leave.

A couple of days later, the Locks of Love program was discussed in Sunday school. And Adam decided then and there he would grow his hair to help some kid like the one he'd just befriended.

The way Ali sees it, Kiki had served as the conduit for Adam to make a connection with someone who had some issues, too. The additional confidence he developed from KiKi's presence has allowed Adam to reach out and help others in many ways, without fear of the kinds of avoidance and rejection he encountered before Kiki.

"I knew she would be important in his life," Ali says, emotion strangling her words. "I just didn't imagine in how many ways she would help."

Adam shrugs off compliments about his generosity, his determination to give to someone else. It's hair. It grows.

He's very clear, though, about his attachment to and affection for the dog he sometimes calls "Butter Dimples."

"She's so smart," Adam says, "and she's really good."

She's also a fine teacher and a great pal.

"She is," says Ali, "exactly what Adam needed."