He's just a little dog with a big job

Sep. 24—The pair might get some looks as they walk the halls of Lewiston High School, but both the high school senior and her service dog are meant to be there. And their relationship was meant to be.

Boomer is the first service dog at LHS and his human, Pacience Oviatt, is the one responsible for getting him there.

Oviatt and her mom, Sarah Hayward, were at school registration and read the district policy on service dogs. They discovered they had to tell the district within 10 days about bringing a service dog to school and there were rules on spaying and neutering the dog.

Oviatt couldn't find anything on the Americans with Disabilities Act that regulated when the school needed to be notified about a dog or that the dog had to be spayed or neutered. She had become an expert on the subject of service dogs last year, when she wrote a paper on the topic, including the laws, but she still double-checked the ADA website before going to Lewiston School District Superintendent Lance Hansen.

Hansen told Oviatt she could bring Boomer to school for the time being and he would discuss the policy issue with the district's attorney. At the school board meeting Sept. 12, Oviatt found out that she was right about changing the policy, so the school board voted unanimously to waive the requirements about spaying and neutering and the restrictions on notification.

"(I was) very happy to have learned that I was not only correct, but I could change and help the Lewiston School District become within compliance of the ADA," Oviatt said.

Oviatt's need for a service dog began when she was an infant. She was diagnosed with neuroblastoma Feb. 8, 2005, when she was 7 months old and they began intravenous chemotherapy. Starting the treatment that young killed the nerve cell pathways in her brain. As a result, she has aphasia, which means she sometimes can't remember the names of things, and Horner's syndrome, where she can't control her body temperature — and these health struggles contribute to Oviatt's anxiety, another one of her disabilities.

"None of this, unfortunately, the world can see," Hayward said about her daughter's disabilities. "There are just things that happen inside her body so it's very hard for people to understand why she has a service dog and needs a service dog."

The family got Boomer, a dachshund, in February of 2020, even though when the pair met, it wasn't love at first sight. Initially, Boomer wanted nothing to do with Oviatt, but then he started reacting to her anxiety, even before she had a formal diagnosis.

"He noticed her anxiety and he felt the need to help her, whereas the other (dogs), they don't care," Hayward said.

They have a total of six dogs who are just pets — and so is Boomer, when he's not on duty. He's just like any other dog. He runs, plays and goes out on the water in the family's paddle board and kayak.

All that changes when Oviatt grabs his service dog vest.

"He knows that as soon as Pacience grabs his vest, that that's it," Hayward said. "His vest is just a signal for him to know that he is going to work. When he doesn't have the vest at home then he gets to be a normal dog. He gets to play and do that kind of stuff. But once he has his vest on then he doesn't seek out attention from anyone. It's just her and him."

Even the sound of his vest clanging on his leash has Boomer reporting to Oviatt for duty. The vest was part of training so he associates wearing it with being Oviatt's service dog.

Oviatt trained Boomer herself using YouTube videos of professional trainers to task-train him. Having a dog trained by a professional can cost $10,000 or more for a medical alert dog or a psychiatric dog, which is not obtainable for many people. There are also no regulations from the ADA on whether or not the service dog has to be trained by a professional or not.

Even before he was trained, Boomer was working to calm Oviatt down in high-stress moments, so they reinforced the behavior with treats when he heard or smelled something that preceded an anxiety attack.

"He already knew what the signs looked like, he just didn't know what he needed to do was to get on my lap to do deep pressure therapy," Oviatt said, which helps relax her by putting gentle pressure on the nervous system when Boomer sits on her.

So when Boomer hears her heart rate increase exponentially, he'll sit and whine or put his head on her lap. When Oviatt is overloaded with sensory input while walking in the halls he knows to follow someone else to a classroom or quiet space. Boomer also knows her schedule and keeps her day on track. He finished his training in July and practiced for the busy high school by going to North 40.

The most visible sign of Boomer's service dog status is the vest he wears with his psychiatric service dog patch. The patch also tells people to leave them alone if Boomer and Oviatt are on the ground doing deep pressure therapy.

Boomer mostly works with Oviatt at the Lewiston High School to help prevent her from having anxiety attacks at school. Before she had Boomer, Oviatt missed a lot of school because of her anxiety. By having Boomer at LHS, it gives her a way to calm down without leaving school.

However, Boomer's presence at the high school has caused some other issues. At the beginning of the school year, not a lot of people were aware of his service dog status and Oviatt would get comments in the halls and some boys would bark at Boomer. The distractions from students could cause Boomer to miss an anxiety alert, which could mean Oviatt doesn't get the help she needs from him. Then, there was an announcement in the school's morning bulletin that Boomer was a service dog, which helped decrease the unwanted attention — along with Oviatt ignoring comments from students.

Hayward said there's not many service dogs in the school district, so many students aren't familiar with seeing a dog in the halls of the schools. Also, Boomer's small stature doesn't look like a typical service dog, so he gets a lot more stares.

However, both Oviatt and Hayward are hoping Boomer's presence on campus will encourage other parents to bring in more service dogs. Boomer is the only service dog at LHS and Hayward said there's also one at Sacajawea Middle School, making two service dogs for the school district. It's also the first year both dogs are in the schools.

"I would like to be able to see more dogs in school that can help kids who need them," Hayward said. "There is definitely a need for it in this school district."

Oviatt and Hayward also know the challenges of having a service dog in a world full of various service dogs, therapy dogs and emotional support animals, who all have different roles and requirements.

Hayward said one of the biggest differences is that Boomer is a task-trained service dog, unlike an emotional support animal. She compares Boomer's tasks to a dog that guides someone who is blind and can't see for themselves.

"(Oviatt) can't calm herself down, so he does that for her," she said. That behavior is trained and not something an emotional support animal, which only provides a sense of calm for people, can do.

"He's not my sense of calm — he is my calm," Oviatt explained.

Oviatt's work in changing the district policy hopefully won't be the last time she works as a champion for those with disabilities. "Pacience is an advocate, she's been an advocate," her mom said.

It's a natural fit. Hayward said her daughter would seek out nonverbal kids to talk with and have a conversation with them, like any other kid. "It takes a special kind of person to do that and she's been doing it ever since she was little," she said. "She seeks out kids who have disabilities just like she does and tries to help."

Oviatt plans to work with the Iowa Children's Miracle Network, which helps families with cancer and provides advocacy for people with disabilities. It also raises money for the children's hospital where Oviatt was treated as a child.

"I've always been kind of put in front as somebody who is very up-front with their service animal and their disability," Oviatt said. "So yes, I would like to continue with advocating for people with disabilities."

Brewster may be contacted at kbrewster@lmtribune.com or at (208) 848-2297.