"Having a dog – a man’s best friend – who is there to comfort you and offer you compassion and love in those moments of need would made a world of a difference for this kid."
DeFUNIAK SPRINGS — Rachel Lewis can tell when her son Remington Lewis is about to have an outburst.
He balls up his fists. His voice deepens. His skin turns blotchy. His eyes widen. Within a minute, he summons a seemingly "superhuman" strength far greater than that of an 11-year-old his size.
Remington, who his family calls Remi, was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder at age 5, and has since been prescribed a long list of medications and diagnosed with a slew of other illnesses that cause behavioral issues. Among them are disruptive mood regulation disorder, bipolar disorder, depression and anxiety.
And when Remi’s mental illness reveals itself, there is no telling what he might do. He might break something. He might hurt someone.
But more often than not, he will hurt himself.
"What Remington has, we never know what to expect," Rachel said. "We never know what causes things. Since COVID happened and him being home, we’ve been having him stealing from stores, lying. I found two steak knives in his room. He tried to light the ceiling on fire. It’s been very hard. I’ve even locked scissors up, lighters — anything he can use to hurt."
Rachel is scared of what Remi might do.
He is a good big brother, but she has to watch him carefully when he is with his two younger siblings, Elena, 4, and Hoyt, 1. She has to protect others from Remi, including herself, and she has to protect Remi from himself.
She doesn’t want to lose him.
"I’m his safe haven," Rachel said. "He is very, very close to me. He’s very attached to me. He doesn’t remember what he’s saying or doing when this is happening. He has no idea. When he gets out of it, he’s like, ‘What just happened?’ Then he starts crying telling me how sorry he is. He just says he sees black and he gets so mad."
Remi has a kryptonite. Her name is Willow Grace.
In his angriest moments, he would never deign to hurt the German shepherd that has lived by his side since she joined their family in February. Remi loves animals, Rachel said.
"When I saw a picture of Willow, I just knew this dog was going to be special," Rachel said. "I can’t explain what happened. And I’m not a crier. I contacted the owner of the breeder. She gave me the price, and I was like, ‘There’s no way I can afford that.’ She’s a full-blooded German shepherd. The next day, she called me and said, ‘I just felt like this dog would be a special part of your family. She is yours if you want her, and I’m not worried about the money.’"
The Pensacola breeder kept Willow for six months while the family made payments. Rachel didn’t tell Remi until she knew they could afford her.
"The day before, I printed out her picture and got a collar and a leash, and I gave it as a present for him to open," Rachel said. "He was so excited and so happy. He was like, ‘I’m going to keep this picture forever.’ "
The moment Willow arrived in her forever home, Rachel realized she had united Remi with his best friend. They are inseparable.
"From day one, she slept in his room," Rachel said. "She was supposed to be my dog, really. She’s always been more with Remington. He feeds and waters her. He always puts her outside. She sleeps with him or next to him. She’s never slept anywhere in the house except next to Remington."
Their bond is strong.
"When he was having his episode three months ago, I noticed that as soon as it started happening, Willow started pacing and whining in front of him uncontrollably," Rachel said. "When he went outside for a little bit to help calm down, she was whining again. I knew that she picked up on it."
A therapist recommended certifying Willow as a therapy dog, so Rachel did some research. She spoke to a dog trainer, who suggested she have Willow trained to be a service dog instead. A therapy dog provides emotional support, but a service dog performs tasks specifically for one person.
"A service dog will pick up on when Remington is having an outburst," Rachel said. "She will protect him. She will keep him from running. She will make sure he has his medication. She will be trained to notice and will know her cue when to help him calm down — and prevent him from leaving and prevent him from grabbing things that could harm himself. She wouldn’t be a family pet. She would be a working service dog that is with Remington to work for Remington."
As a service dog, Willow can be with Remi at all times — even at school. Nine times out of 10, his outbursts are at school, Rachel said.
Rachel didn’t know how expensive training Willow would be, though. After speaking with several dog trainers, she was quoted prices upward of $10,000.
"We’re a low-income family," Rachel said. "There’s no way we could ever pay that much money. My child needs help right now."
Rachel launched a GoFundMe page to raise money for dog training.
She will likely choose to hire Chase Shankle, a dog trainer with Total Dog Training. He will travel to them to train Willow in tasks that specifically serve Remi and teach Remi how to maintain that training, he said.
"There’s a big stigma out there with everyone wanting to certify animals," Shankle said. "A lot of people are trying to buy the certificate online. The thing they fail to maintain with their dog or achieve is the training portion of it. If a dog doesn’t act like a service animal or a well-behaved dog, anyone in this world will look at it and say, ‘This really isn’t a service animal.’ "
A dog’s training can take several months, making the cost vary case-by-case, Shankle said. He estimates Lewis’ family could spend several thousand dollars on training and other dog-related items, but plans to work with their family financially. If he could do it for free, he would, he said.
"After having met with Willow, who is a German shepherd, she is a very fast learner," Shankle said. "I 110% think she would progress very quickly."
Shankle has trained dogs in the past for children with disabilities, he said. He believes training Willow will help Remi cope.
"A dog is a man’s best friend," Shankle said. "Remi has some disabilities that cause outbursts, some things that aren’t controllable by himself. Having a dog — a man’s best friend — who is there to comfort you and offer you compassion and love in those moments of need would made a world of a difference for this kid."