XENIA, Ohio – Samuel DeWitt stands just inside the familiar safe haven of his mother’s arms as she leans over him. With a blue permanent marker in her left hand she sketches his name and the date “Samuel 11.2.12” onto the large cream-colored canvas backdrop. His tiny hand overlaps her right hand that’s pressed up against the canvas. He carefully watches as each letter finds its way onto the 4 Paws Graduation sign. It’s a moment that they have waited a year and a half to experience. Lugnut was finally coming home with 6-year-old Samuel. Samuel and Lugnut were graduating as a boy and his service dog.
“We’re PAWsitively Blessed. It’s an amazing blessing for us and one we never thought we’d have,” said David DeWitt, pastor for Mt. Orab Wesleyan and Samuel’s father.
But before their tears of joy and gratitude could stream down the DeWitt family’s faces, they would shed a few thousand wet drops of sadness, disappointment and anger on a journey they won’t ever forget—a journey that got them to this moment.
Long journey with a sweet ending, new beginning—
Their story started back in April 2011 when they began fundraising for a “service dog” through Animals for Autism, located in Illinois.
Samuel, who loves popsicles and reading, was eager to meet his Siberian huskie named Shadow—a dog his mom and dad had hoped would be the answer to their prayers. But that day would never come for the then-5-year-old, wide-eyed little boy.
Back in June 2011, the DeWitts, of Mt. Orab, Ohio, raised money to obtain Shadow. They fundraised. They posted their journey on their Facebook page Autism’s Ruff. They did news stories. They sent money… but no dog. They called, they emailed… but nothing. In fact, the organization they were working with seemed to have disappeared completely off the map.
The DeWitts had sought after a service dog because they feared for Samuel’s safety. Samuel has autism. His mom, Elizabeth who is a stay-at-home mom and who homeschools Samuel; said autism does not stop their active son.
“He has a gift for not giving up. Things can be kind of challenging to him and he kind of inspires the rest of us. He doesn’t let anything stop him.”
It’s been challenging and sometimes heartbreaking for his parents. Just before his diagnosis, Samuel lost the ability to say “momma.”
“It was difficult to have my son say things like ‘momma, dadda’ and then, you know, to lose those. When lost [‘momma’], I kind of waited another two years to hear that,” said Elizabeth.
Finding out that their son had autism nearly three years ago planted a mix of emotions for both parents.
“In some ways it was a relief that we’re finding out and in other ways it was gut wrenching, just because you know every day he’s going to struggle with something probably for the rest of his life,” said David.
That’s where the family had hoped the money they were raising would help provide their son with a much-needed service dog in order to keep him safe.
“Samuel doesn’t understand some of the dangers. He has no fear of like bodies of water or cars or even strangers. Samuel doesn’t think anything about walking up to a stranger. And so, the dog will help, number one, to keep Samuel from wandering away from us; will help keep Samuel with us,” said Elizabeth. But after they were let down by Animals for Autism, the family felt defeated—like they were about to have to start all over.
Samuel, for one, was not giving up his mom remembered.
“He has a determination that where most people would might give up on things when it gets too tough, Samuel, a lot of things are tough for him, so he doesn’t have that option so he continues to go and fight and push on.”
“[And it’s] our goal to give him the best possible life we can,” said Elizabeth.
In February 2012, it became apparent that Samuel was not going to receive a service dog from the organization his family had sent money to. They put away the photo of “Shadow” that Samuel had carried around for so long—assuming it was going to be his furry best friend. It wasn’t going to happen. But that’s when 4 Paws for Ability stepped in to lend a helping paw… well, four paws to be exact.
“We felt that this family had been through enough,” said Shirk after a news story about the DeWitts was brought to her attention.
She decided to donate a $22,000 service dog to Samuel—funding came from Wrestle Against Autism and an anonymous foundation in Cincinnati.
“[This dog is] going to give Samuel opportunities to really have normal functioning and give him a better daily life,” said David, who was grateful for the outpouring of support for his son and his family.
“It was just such an amazing act of kindness,” he said just after meeting Karen for the first time just eight months ago.
Samuel was pretty excited too.
“We had sat down and actually had talked with him a little bit that Samuel, you are going to get a dog. And we weren’t quite sure it really even sunk in at first, but about three or four minutes later, Samuel was just running around the house going, “Oh man! Oh man! Oh man!” said Elizabeth of her son’s reaction.
Just a few weeks ago, the DeWitts received their match from 4 Paws, which included a photo and letter from their service dog Lugnut. It was a moment Elizabeth said she would never forget, bringing tears of joy to her eyes.
Now, the real journey was about to begin.
The night before their first day of class Samuel kept shouting “Fun! Fun! Fun!” said his parents, who were equally as eager to get their son to 4 Paws for Ability to begin the last chapter to their long story. On the first day of their 11-day class, Samuel dragged his parents and sister Abigail to the front doors at 4 Paws for Ability. He was ready.
The 6-year-old with a light brown buzz-cut sat on his mom’s lap, stroking her curly, brown shoulder-length hair, waiting to meet his best friend, Lugnut.
Elizabeth, who sat with her arms wrapped around her fidgety son, said they weren’t sure if Samuel would understand what meeting Lugnut meant.
His innocent, warm brown eyes, peered across the 4 Paws training floor, as one by one, each dog was given to the other families in the October class. Finally, it was time for Lugnut to be led across the floor and into his arms.
As the beautiful, Golden Retriever made his way to his boy; Samuel’s eye lit up like it was Christmas morning. His hands began to clap together and his smile was uncontrollably from ear to ear. This was the best gift his parents could ever imagine for their son.
Never in a million years did his parents believe that this was truly going to be a “picture perfect moment.” Samuel, they said, gets scared when meeting someone for the first time, when someone/something new is introduced to him. But as they watched in disbelief, they reveled in the fact that this time, they were wrong.
“His face [told us] he completely understood,” said Elizabeth about the first time her son saw his service dog.
Licks were bountiful as was Lugnut’s tremendous energy. Samuel giggled with excitement as Lugnut jumped and put his paws onto David’s shoulders in between eating handfuls of treats from his boy.
“He’s got boundless energy,” said David, which soon turned into a worry to him—but a worry that he would soon see as a PAWsitive blessing to his son.
David and Elizabeth felt like pinching themselves, afraid it was all just a dream… waiting for the ball to drop and something bad to take away the joy that they were experiencing in overload that first day of class.
“We were waiting for the moment for something to fall through—this is the moment we’ve been waiting for,” said David.
Soon, they experienced what they thought might be that ball-dropping moment. Samuel began to sneeze and his face was breaking out in hives within minutes of meeting Lugnut.
Turned out, Samuel was allergic to Lugnut’s kisses, his saliva. Now, they keep him from licking Samuel as much as they can.
Day 1 would only be the beginning of this chapter in their story.
Training Samuel’s new BFF and his parents—
“If he doesn’t do one other single thing… he’s incredible,” said David. “He’s a tracking machine—he’s a beast. He’s exactly what we need.”
Tracking his boy, Lugnut certainly gave chase—through a variety of weather: the sleet, the snow, the sun, the rain and the cold. They went through it all. On the first day of tracking, David wasn’t expecting the sheer force this dog would have in finding his son. He soon would find out. As Lugnut took off to find Samuel, David stepped in to a hole, falling, losing Lugnut’s leash. This was one of the many moments they were ready to pack up and go home, he said.
“I panicked at first,” said David. But then realized that regardless of his own tumble to the ground, Lugnut found Samuel in record speed. In the days that followed, Lugnut ran through fences and a dry creek bed, all in search of his boy.
“Even when I screwed up, he found Samuel,” said David. “He was determined he was going to find his boy.”
His parents were finally realizing the magnitude of what Lugnut was going to be able to do for their entire family, including giving Samuel something he has never had before: independence.
Elizabeth said that her son cannot do what most typical 6-year-olds can, like go the zoo or the mall, at least not as freely as most children his age. She said that they have to put Samuel in a stroller or hold both of his wrists, stripping his freedom completely away—robbing him of part of his childhood, she said. But that was all about to change.
Samuel got his first taste of freedom while he was tethered to Lugnut during training at the mall. It was in that moment that Elizabeth saw what this could mean for her son and the rest of his life.
“It’s a sense of independence he will gain, that he’d get no other way. Seeing that for the first time was incredible,” she said. “It gave him part of his childhood back.”
There have been so many experiences that they have had to take away from Samuel, fearing for his safety, said Elizabeth. But now, with tethering, those moments can be given back to him one at a time. And to them, that is a big deal.
“Those things that everyone takes for granted, we can’t and that’ll make a huge difference,” said David. “[An] incredible difference this will make for him not just now but years to come—day in, day out, just giving him a better daily life.”
And in their daily life, which includes taking Lugnut everywhere Samuel goes, they hope to enlighten the public.
“This is going to be a challenge, but also an opportunity to educate people,” said Elizabeth. “Samuel gets noticed for the wrong reasons, like stimming. If they’re not staring, they’re ignoring him.”
More importantly, Samuel will be taking steps inside the grocery store, church, wherever, on his own and that is “monumental,” said David.
They plan to “use Lugnut as a social bridge for Samuel in public,” said Elizabeth, who is looking forward to the first time they are able to go to church tethered, walk into Kroger tethered, go anywhere they want tethered—knowing that Samuel is safer than he was just 11 days ago without Lugnut by his side.
“People would never think to deny someone who needs a wheelchair or oxygen tank… this is just as important,” said Elizabeth about taking her son and his service dog into public spaces, stores, etc.
She hopes that if people see Samuel in public with Lugnut, “they’ll see Samuel as a boy—giving him a chance to connect with people, to connect with other kids.”
Graduation day, final chapter?
Lugnut is Samuel’s “perfect match,” said his parents with pride in their eyes. Following Samuel’s every step, Lugnut is very tolerant of ear flicking, ear tugging and getting the pads of his feet rubbed, said Elizabeth. “We see why he was chosen [for Samuel].”
The bond wasn’t something she expected so soon.
On the way to his last day of class, she looked in the rearview mirror to see Lugnut’s head in Samuel’s lap and Samuel’s hand resting on Lugnut’s head.
“[That’s] priceless to us.”
Priceless moment? Yes. Easy getting there? Not hardly.
“It wasn’t easy—but just because it’s easy doesn’t mean it’s good,” said David about the class at 4 Paws for Ability that was coming to an end.
After 11 days of doubt and dismay, tragedies and triumphs, the morning of their 4 Paws test had finally arrived. They feared the worst for Lugnut, afraid that he wasn’t going to pass. It was unfounded worry. Lugnut shined.
“When he’s in public, he’s on it,” said Elizabeth about the newest member of the DeWitt family. He passed with flying colors.
The moment that Elizabeth held Lugnut’s shiny, metal, engraved service dog tag in her hands, that’s when she said it hit her. She cried, realizing that “we’re going home with Samuel’s service dog.”
After 16 months it was now the end of one chapter, allowing the DeWitts to move on to the next.
“It’s not an ending, it’s a new beginning—or maybe the start of a new book. This story isn’t over,” said David, who doesn’t regret the bumpy road they had to take to their destination: 4 Paws for Ability. “We took a different turn than we thought we were going to and in the end the path was much better.”
It’s been a lot of ups, downs, fears and tears, but overall, they wouldn’t trade the past 11 days or even the last year and a half for anything because it all brought them to the one thing that they truly wanted for their son all along: a better life.
“If we hadn’t gone through what we did, we wouldn’t be here now. For whatever reason this is the way it was meant to be,” said David. “It’s an amazing blessing. It will change our lives forever.”
“We have the tools now to keep Samuel safe—it’s a peace of mind.”
The day was full of emotion for Elizabeth, David, Abigail and Samuel’s aunt Patty DeWitt. It was a day that they weren’t sure would ever happen. They cried knowing what this day would mean for their Samuel and for the rest of their lives.
Lugnut will “not make life easier, but will make Samuel’s life better,” said Elizabeth. “Lugnut was the dog that was meant for Samuel all along.”
-Photos and article by Jessica Noll
Read their story below via the links, and on their Facebook page Autism’s Ruff.
Samuel Series: A boy’s journey to his best friend for life-
By Jessica Noll