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A Boy and the Dog who Pulled Him Out of His Shell

Posted on Oct 09, 2019

A boy and his dog.

Sometimes it takes more than a good game of fetch to bring a dynamic duo together.

There are a lot of moving parts. A lot of busy people willing to drop a lot of other priorities to make it possible for Liam and Sully to get where they needed to be: Together.

For Liam — a boy with a brain tumor — it had to happen. For comfort. For support. For therapy.

Liam’s neuro-oncologist knew it. His hospital social worker knew it. His parents knew it. And thankfully, Johns Hopkins All Children’s Foundation knew it.

It Takes a Village

As one of several Cancer & Blood Disorders Institute social workers at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, Rachel Law wears many hats. It’s just part of the gig. She gets some pretty challenging requests from the families and patients she works with long-term. Help connecting patients with social services.

But funding a support dog — and not just any support dog — for a 6-year-old recovering from a brain tumor, well, that request was a first for Rachel. Support dogs are incredible at what they do, and their tasks can be perfectly customized to, say, relieving the fears of a little boy going through chemotherapy for a diffuse astrocytoma diagnosed at age 4, and getting through overwhelming tests like the sometimes-menacing MRI machines.

But those life-altering puppy duties can be costly and time consuming to teach. Which means they don’t come cheap. And for a family already dealing with the financial hardships of having a two-years sick little boy with a sweet smile and a heart of gold, the thought of taking on an animal that can cost thousands of dollars to fully train was insurmountable.

The Foundation Steps In

First the dog — the perfect-match dog — had to be found.

“We had been wanting a support dog for Liam, but his dad, Kevin, and little brother, Logan, are allergic, and we just weren’t sure we could make it happen,” explains Laura, Liam’s mom, who’d spent months on the Internet searching for options. A donation was obtained through Golfers vs. Brain Cancer, secured by the Johns Hopkins All Children’s Foundation.

Enter Lyn Stanley and Down Home Doodles, a support-dog training facility located in Utah.

“Bernedoodles make excellent therapy dogs because they are smart, and they meet the criteria of being hypoallergenic,” explains Lyn, who searched carefully to find the exact match for Liam in temperament and training criteria. “I spent a lot of time talking to Laura and Kevin and learning their son’s needs. We wanted a low-key dog who was gentle and quiet like Liam. But I also knew that Liam needed this dog right away, so we delivered Sully a little sooner than we might with another dog,” she explains. “And once we found the right puppy, we needed to get moving.”

Sully, an adorable, fluffy black and white pup, has not completed his training by a longshot at just 6 months old, but as Liam’s current needs are limited to emotional support, this boy and his dog could come together right away. And, boy, were they ready.

“As Liam went through chemo treatments over the last few years, his anxiety got worse and worse,” Laura explains. “The tumor, which was mostly removed, had been on the stem of his brain, the area that affects anxiety, and Liam also will be facing some side effects for much of his childhood, so we knew there would be an ongoing need for an emotional support dog, and we were so lucky to find Sully.”

Lyn and Sully hopped on a plane from Utah and flew to Florida for a little one-on-one training with Mom who will take over Sully’s daily training as the puppy grows. Lyn stayed for several days to make sure they had the right match and that the family was comfortable teaching her techniques. They will even have online training videos as a way of keeping Sully up to speed. At some point, Liam will be reassessed for future needs and Sully will likely receive more training from Lyn, but for now, he’s perfect.

The Perfect Match

If it was a movie script, Liam and Sully could not have had a happier ending. Sully has been trained to notice no one but Liam, meaning he can give his full attention to shy Liam when he is feeling anxious —such as, during his quarterly MRIs, one of which was scheduled right after the two met in August.

During Liam’s many previous MRIs, he would panic and cry and sometimes refuse to participate all together, Laura recalls. But with his new dog tagging along and keeping him distracted, they got through the latest one beautifully.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Laura said. “Liam woke up and the first thing he said was, ‘Where is my dog?’ It was amazing. They had only known each other a few days, and they were already inseparable. This wonderful dog has pulled Liam out of his shell and turned him around completely. We can’t believe it.”

Another concern for Liam’s family was the normally exciting milestone of entering first grade. With his entire last two years being surrounded by treatments and medical appointments, they knew the transition to first grade would be a tough one. Liam was used to missing school one to two days a week and having the comfort of his doctors and nurses at his side during that time. This new schedule of simply being a typical 6-year-old boy, while it seems easy to most, would turn out to be a difficult and anxious transition for him. An emotional support dog for someone like Liam diverts undesired medical attention off of him to his new puppy of which he is very proud of and draws much-needed confidence from.

“Once Sully arrived, his fear went out the window,” Laura adds excitedly. “All he could do was show everyone photos of his new dog.” He couldn’t wait to tell everyone about Sully, who waits patiently at home for Liam to return from school. The kids, meanwhile, loved Sully and have shown lots of support.

This family’s cancer journey is not yet over, but they are thrilled that this “sweet pup” is making life much more special for Liam.

A boy and his dog. As it should be. With a little help from a village.

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