Levi Balentine has already bonded with Bridger, a service dog who helps him cope with his autism.

Levi is the first autistic child in Montana to receive such a specialist dog. K9 Care Montana, Inc., of Philipsburg is training Bridger and other dogs to help at least two Butte families.

While Bridger has yet to join Levi and his mother Misty Balentine at home full-time or at school, the chocolate lab knows what spaces bother Levi so he can soothe his fears. He gives Levi and his family a confidence boost.

“He’s trained to recognize my son’s triggers,” said Misty. “Levi hates elevators, airplanes, school buses, and he’s not fond of the gym at school.”

Think of Bridger as an older brother. In dog years, he is 14. Levi is 8 and a second grader at Ramsay School.

“Bridger definitely has a huge calming effect,” Misty said. “Levi is a little more willing to do more if he’s with him.”

Levi did not talk until he was 5 years old. Now mainstreamed in the regular classroom most of the day, he anxiously awaits when Bridger can come home for good.

After completing his training with K9 Care Montana, the dog returns to the Balentine residence to open arms this summer.

June 27, to be exact.

“He’s coming home on a Thursday in June,” Levi frequently reminds his mother.

Levi has helped his mother raise Bridger since the pup was eight weeks old, but the lab has one last leg of a 2-year training to finish before he’s a full-fledged service dog.

“As long as I can give Levi an end date, he’s OK,” she said. “It’s hard to give him back, as my little one really misses him.”

David Riggs, CEO and founder of K9 Care Montana, said it takes between two to three years to train an autism service dog -- something he’s latched onto since services for autistic children are limited in Butte.

Families foster the service dog until Riggs steps in to conduct training.

The overall goal, Riggs said, is to help decrease the child’s stress level. There are a few ways to do that.

“The dog helps the child with socialization, because we actually want people to come up and pet the service dog because these children have trouble socializing,” said Riggs. “The dog provides a calmness.”

A dog can lean up against a child to create a sense of security or to help Levi’s big brother, Matthew, maintain his balance. Matt, 10, a Ramsay fourth grader, has Central core myopathy, a muscle weakness disease.

“These children seem to calm down a bit when there’s compression,” added Riggs. “That is, if a dog leans up against the child, that tight sense of security calms him.”

Riggs, however, aims to bust stress levels for all family members.

“The mother, the family, the entire unit has a tendency to worry a lot,” Riggs added. “If the child is going to run away, for instance, we attach GPS devices on our service dogs to track the child. Wherever the dog is, hopefully the kid is.”

Another Butte child family benefits from Rocky, a Labrador retriever, who visits to help with an autistic child. In a way, the dog trains all family members while Riggs methodically brings the dog up to speed.

Nora Howard, 4, responded immediately to Rocky, who’s much bigger. Nora struggles with autism, behavioral and sleeping disorder issues, yet she will eventually learn commands to keep Rocky under control, said mother Joanna Howard.

“As soon as the dog came in, Nora was a completely different kid,” said Joanna. “She relaxed.”

Even though K9 Care Montana will most likely assign the Howards a different dog, Joanna is thankful that all services are covered financially.

Like the Balentines, the Howards interact monthly with Riggs and his dogs in outdoor recreation activities in order to “better understand and customize the service dog to meet the child’s specific needs,” said Riggs.

One goal Joanna shoots for is to eventually cut down on Nora’s medications through interaction with a service dog.

“There’s stuff we didn’t even know dogs could do, which is really neat,” said Joanna, grateful that Riggs works with all family members during the training periods.

Like Balentine, Joanna Howard frets about the lack of local services to treat autistic children. So K9 Care Montana is a godsend.

“For us, it’s a huge resource,” added Joanna. “It’s great -- I can call David any time. It’s pretty amazing. It’s really stress-free.”

Riggs runs a friendly affair as he encourages interactions between families struggling with an autistic child and military veterans in the Wounded Warrior program.

About 80 percent of his work entails training dogs to help vets suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, for instance, through Wounded Warriors.

He specializes in training mostly task-oriented breeds like Labrador retrievers and golden retrievers.

“But the number one thing and difference between a service dog and any other dog is this,” said Riggs. “A service dog must pick up objects, open doors, do compression, give stability and allow the child to stand and hold onto the dog or get back up. The dog must be able to do a task.”

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) states that a service dog must provide at least one such task.

Educating the child, family and public are high on his list. He estimates he trains about 24 dogs a year.

“A therapy dog or emotional support dog is not a service dog,” Riggs stressed.

Even though Levi and Nora are obviously emotionally attached to some degree to their service dogs, even more accomplishments await.

“My goal is to have (Levi) and Bridger go together to school next,” said Misty Balentine. “But I don’t feel either is ready for that yet.”

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Education Reporter who also covers features at The Montana Standard, I am a Cascade-Ulm-Great Falls native. Originally a sports writer, I wrote for the Missoulian and the Great Falls Tribune. I freelanced for The Seattle Times and other NW publications.

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