A Boy, His Dogs and World Down Syndrome Day

A Boy, His Dogs and World Down Syndrome Day

Here in our office, just as it happens in offices all over the world every day, we chat with our colleagues and get to know them better. After all, some days we spend more hours with them than we do our families at home! Here at Sergeant’s, one of the nice things about what we do – working in the pet industry – is that we get to tell great stories about our furry (or feathered, or finned!) friends. There’s one story, however, that I just have to share with you. Get ready though, because this one might touch your heart strings.

My colleague Kim has three children, ages 6, 7 and 10. Just like all of us with families and careers, life at Kim’s house is a jumble of activities and moments to celebrate. Part of that jumble includes two adorable lumps of fur, also known as Cali and Maisie – sister Shih Tzus from the same litter. And one of those moments to celebrate is today, which happens to be World Down Syndrome Day.

There’s a connection between the two, between World Down Syndrome Day and Kim’s Shih Tzus. You see, Will – Kim’s seven-year-old son – was born with a teeny, tiny difference from his sisters. Instead of having two copies of the 21st chromosome, he has three. This is known as Trisomy 21, or for most of us, as Down Syndrome (hence the date of the day of commemoration – March 21, or 3-21…) And while Will laughs and plays and goes to school and begs for cookies and complains about vegetables and fights with his sisters for iPad time like everyone his age, that extra little chromosome has presented its share of challenges to him, and to his parents.

Enter two adorable, petite puppies. Cali and Maisie joined Kim’s family about two years ago, at the tender age of eight weeks old. One of Kim’s daughters had begged for a pet for so long, it just finally had to happen. Like any parents of three young children thinking about raising two new puppies, Kim and her husband David briefly considered whether they were insane! But they brought the puppies home and everyone was thrilled.

And then, some really, really amazing things started to happen. Unexpected things. Beautiful things. Things that define ‘man’s best friend.’ In this case, a little tiny ‘man’ with an extra chromosome and two tiny best friends.

It started with kisses.

Will had been going to school for some time and had been making progress, but his verbal skills were a huge challenge. Children with Down Syndrome often have a difficult time with oral motor skills because of low muscle tone. Speech therapists, teachers and other loving adults in Will’s life had worked with him and worked with him, and while progress was made, it was slow. He couldn’t verbalize his thoughts or needs to those around him. But then, Will saw his sisters calling the puppies with kisses. “Here, Cali and Maisie!” was usually followed with that familiar puckering sound. SMOOCH!

Will started to call the dogs this way, too. Only for Will, this wasn’t just a way to call the dogs. It was a way his body trained itself, strengthened itself, for speech. And after a remarkably short period of time, Will was chatting with his puppies, whom he had grown to adore (and by adore, I mean REALLY, REALLY adore! Joyfully adore!) Soon after, he was answering the phone (I can personally attest!), talking to his family and communicating clearly at school. Without knowing it, Cali and Maisie may have ended up being Will’s best speech therapists! All because he wanted to kiss his furry friends.

That isn’t all, though. Two years later, Cali and Maisie continue to bring so much joy to Will that even their occasional antics (and by antics I mean accidents and escape attempts) are barely noticed by the family.

Today, Will has made big progress in school because, in part, his new friends have helped him gain an amazing amount of self confidence. Just as he learned to talk to them, he now reads to them. He has learned how to be gentle and take care of them. And he has learned the immense sense of pride that comes from pitching in and helping his family. Each day, it is Will’s responsibility to feed his dogs and let them outside. He beams with pride when he know he’s done his duty and taken care of his “girls.”

Cali and Maisie are also motivation for Will. Exercise is important for children with Down Syndrome, in order to keep their muscle tone up and avoid the potential for weight issues. Walking his dogs or pulling them in his red wagon every day is a way Will enjoys getting this exercise. The pups are also (cleverly, if I might add) used by Will’s parents as a reward system. When he doesn’t want to do his reading homework (what kid does?!), they offer to bring one of the dogs over to join them.

When the dogs joined the family in January 2010, Will had not mastered the art of being potty trained. He needed this skill to advance in school. And whaddaya know? For all the years of trying, it took just six short months after the dogs arrived. By June, he was a pro. Certainly, his efforts, his parents’ efforts and his natural development played a part. But according to his mom Kim, those dogs played a big role in making him want to advance!

Just about every day now, you can see Cali and Maisie with Will. They all play together. Or snuggle up and watch movies. While the dogs love all the kids – and all the kids love the dogs – there is an undeniable, almost indescribable, bond between this little boy and his canine crew. They even hang out with him when he studies spelling words with his parents in the evenings. In fact, the dogs’ names have even made it onto his personalized spelling list!

This might just be the most important part of all: the companionship. While Will has a very full life that includes play dates with other boys his age with Down Syndrome, swimming lessons, practice for his soccer team and other activities with his sisters, they are all reaching the age where their social activities will start to differ. As the girls go off to slumber parties or other things that sometimes leave Will at home, he doesn’t feel lonely or left out. Why should he? He has his two best friends near him all the time.

Here’s to all of the potential children and adults with Down Syndrome have. Here’s to the joy that they bring their families. And here’s to the pets out there that bring them joy, companionship and help them reach their potential.

A more beautiful example of the bond between pets and people just doesn’t exist in my book.

 PHOTO: Will and his buddy, Cali, on World Down Syndrome Day.

Do you know someone with Down Syndrome or another disability who loves their pet? Leave me a comment below!

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