PEPPERELL — A child and a dog is as all-American as a Norman Rockwell painting.
For Skyler Testa, 9, a dog would be so much more than a pet. It would be a game-changer.
The petite girl, only 34 pounds, has Cornelia de Lang Syndrome, an extremely rare condition with physical, developmental and cognitive implications. She also has autism.
For Skyler, this means she needs more than the in-school and in-home interventions she already has. She needs the help with emotional and social development that a service dog will give her.
“We talked months and months ago about getting a therapy dog,” said family friend and dog trainer Lisa Forbes. She accompanied Skyler and her mother Amy Testa for a visit to the NEADS training center in Princeton.
The National Education for Assistance Dogs Services, a nonprofit agency, has been training assistance dogs and matching them with clients since 1976.
A dog trained for social needs would be “a positive part of her future,” her mother said, “the key to her future.”
Home visits from therapists help her learn daily skills. Other interventions at the LABBB Collaborative School in Burlington help Skyler learn to communicate.
Skyler is very small for her age, but very coordinated, zooming around on her scooter, her mother said. Bone abnormalities mean that she is shorter than average. Regular bouts of acid reflux mean she cannot eat as much as she should.
The family has “fabulous, fabulous direct support,” Testa said.
But Skyler has no friends. Other children will not play with Skyler at the playground, Testa said, because they cannot understand her speech.
You can see the pain in her eyes when Testa said that Skyler just turns away and plays by herself.
“She is the strongest person I have ever met in my life,” she said. “She has thick skin.”
If Skyler had a dog, other kids would want to meet the dog and at the same time, they would interact with the girl who has only adults for companions.
Skyler can get frustrated. When that happens at home, the answer is loud music, her mother said. She hopes to get Skyler into a music therapy class soon.
A dog would help Skyler deal with some of her frustrations, Testa said. It would be there for her and would never walk off and leave her.
Their apartment, within walking distance of Amy’s part-time job at 7-Eleven, is a safe haven for the pair.
Skyler’s toys live behind the couch. There are bicycles and musical instruments. Four large speakers sit in the corners, ready for when Skyler needs the distraction.
Skyler is uncomfortable if she is not in complete control, Testa said.
A stranger in her home made Skyler visibly uncomfortable. Her heavy breathing was a sign of anxiety, Forbes said.
Like any little girl, she was fascinated by the crystals on the table. They were enough to keep her in the room, despite her fears.
Family friends gave the crystals to the Testas, thinking they could find a creative way to sell them and raise some money. The family of two has another big battle to fight — raising enough money to get the service dog.
The dog is expensive. NEADS estimates it costs over $25,000 for the entire process, from acquiring, raising and training the dog to matching it with a new owner and training the owner.
The process began when the Testas and Forbes visited the dog-training facility. Skyler patted a beautiful, black dog and she and her mother, each holding a separate leash, took the dog on a test walk around the campus.
When the Testas get their dog, Amy will need to spend five days training in Princeton. Skyler will join her for the last few days as they learn how to care for and work with the dog.
NEADS asked for $9,500 from the Testas for Skyler’s dog. While that is only a portion of the cost, it is an awful lot of money for a single mom who works part-time.
Skyler can get a dog once half of the funds are raised, Forbes said. If they raise more than $9,500, the additional funds will go back to the Testa family to cover other expenses with owning the dog.
NEADS is helping with the fundraising, setting up a fundraising page for Skyler on their website. They also have other ideas for fundraising and are willing to work with the family to reach their goal.
The nonprofit sweetened the pot even more for the family. If anyone reading this article decides to get a service dog from NEADS, the Testas will be charged $500 less for their dog.
So be sure to mention Skyler Testa if you contact NEADS.
Follow Anne O’Connor on Twitter and Tout @a1oconnor.