Vivienne and Milka: Service dog brings a smile … and much more

viv_milkaWhen the Liedtke family met Milka, they were not looking for a pet. They weren’t searching for a puppy-sized bundle of trouble either. Nor had they considered a service dog for their daughter Vivienne, who was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) prior to her second birthday.

But none of that mattered.

SMA, a genetic muscle-wasting disease, had left Vivienne confined to an electric wheelchair and unable to perform many daily activities independently.

One activity Vivienne loved was hippotherapy (therapeutic horseback riding); the owners of the farm where she went horseback riding also bred puggles, a beagle and pug mix. One week, Vivienne’s therapist placed a tiny, newborn puggle puppy in Vivienne’s hands.

Her face lit up. And she was crushed when her mother Helena told her it was time to return the puppy to its mother.

“I love dogs, but I didn’t want one just then. My hands were full with Vivienne and her younger sister Lara,” recalls Helena.

Helena phoned her husband, suggesting he come to the farm to watch Vivienne ride and secretly hoping he would say “no” to the puppy.

She handed him the puppy, and after weighing the benefits for both Vivienne and Lara, the whole family was hooked.

Several weeks later, Milka came home, ready to be trained as a service dog.

puppy and vivMilka, whose full name is Milka Apple Juice, is named for the family’s favorite Swiss chocolate and Vivienne’s preferred drink.

Helena attended weekly service dog training classes, but the family’s adorable puppy proved to be an obstinate handful. She resorted to hand feeding Milka one piece of kibble at a time to train him and break bad habits like chewing on the family’s clothes and shoes.

Her patience paid off.

Two years later, the family takes Milka everywhere. She visits Boston Children’s Hospital, when Vivienne sees her team in the Spinal Muscular Atrophy Program, and she even goes to the theater, including shows like “The Nutcracker” and “A Christmas Story” with the family. Helena admits she was on the edge of her seat during the scene in “A Christmas Story” when dozens of dogs come on stage to fight over a turkey leg. But Milka stayed right by Vivienne’s side.

The benefits of a service dog

“Milka’s wonderful for Vivienne. Having a service dog gives her some control, and she doesn’t have to ask someone to do everything for her. She can tell Milka to get what she needs. She’s more confident and independent,” explains Helena.

Milka provides physical support as Vivienne enjoys a ferris wheel ride
Milka provides physical support as Vivienne enjoys a ferris wheel ride

Service dogs also help the owners in many other ways like socializing, says Helena, and they take attention away from the wheelchair or disability. “Vivienne immensely dislikes it when the first question other children ask is ‘What’s wrong with you?’ or ‘What do you need this for?’ pointing to her wheelchair. With the dog at her side, the first question is: ‘Oh, can I pet her?’ or ‘What is her name?’”

The precocious pup has even helped other kids. During Vivienne’s recent stay in a skilled nursing facility, Milka supported a three-year-old patient after leg surgery and successfully nudged her to take her first steps.

“The healing effect service animals have on children is amazing,” says Helena. “But it is still important to think through the decision whether a service animal is right for you.”

After her experience with Milka, Helena has some advice for other parents considering adding a service dog to their family:

  • Have a professional train your service animal. Though Helena ultimately trained Milka, it was a lot of effort for an already busy parent.
  • Talk to families who have a service animal, and contact service animal training centers like NEADS in Princeton, MA.
  • Visit fairs like the Abilities Expo (Boston, Sept. 18-20). Families can meet service dogs and trainers to get a first impression.

Stay tuned for part 2 of Vivienne’s story, and learn about a clinical trial for SMA in the next few weeks.

Learn more about Boston Children’s Spinal Muscular Atrophy Program.