It wasn’t exactly love at first sight, but they’re learning each other’s quirks and how to live side by side.
Isabel Moore, a 4-year-old Tacoma girl with autism, knows that her new service dog can be bribed with treats. Luka, a 10-month-old golden Labrador retriever, accepts that Isabel prefers to pet him with her feet.
The pair met Nov. 12 after Luka was flown from Texas to bond with Isabel and embark on training sessions so the puppy eventually can accompany Isabel everywhere.
“It’s almost more about training the human than the dog,” said Isabel’s mother, Liz Moore, 31.
There are multiple commands to learn – sit, stay, drop, kennel up. They must be given in an even-keel voice, never yelling. Luka already knows these instructions, although he now must be taught to do them with distractions.
As a service dog tending to a special needs child, Luka cannot lose focus of his job, no matter what is going on around him.
Moore said she’s thankful to the community for helping her bring Luka into the family. The News Tribune first wrote about the Moores in August when they started raising the necessary $5,000 to obtain the pup from a nonprofit that provides and trains dogs for special needs children.
Money has been tight in their household since Moore’s husband died two years ago and she’s been staying at home taking care of the children while trying to complete a college degree online.
Moore said she was incredibly touched by the selfless people who donated funds to help better Isabel’s life.
Over the next six months, Luka will learn to follow Isabel if she runs off from her mother. He will be taught to stay close to her and offer comfort when Isabel has a meltdown. The dog initially will be tethered to Isabel and both mother and daughter will hold leashes.
Isabel doesn’t interact with people the same way other children do, and strangers often don’t know how to react when Isabel doesn’t respond to a question or wanders away during a conversation.
Making her responsible for Luka and teaching her to grant permission to pet him or tell people his name might improve her social interaction.
“The hope is the dog will bring people over and they’ll stay long enough to get to know Isabel,” Moore said.
The training is being paid for by the North Star Foundation, which provided the dog after the Moores raised half of the $10,000 needed to train Luka and send him to Tacoma.
Wendy Dahl, an animal behavior consultant, will work with Luka and his new family each week until the dog is ready to live with the Moores full-time.
For now, he is spending the week with the Moores and weekends at the home of Moore’s close friend. Heather Lindboe said it’s been wonderful keeping Luka, and it’s good practice to see whether her family is ready for their own pooch.
“We’re all afraid we’re going to break the dog,” Lindboe said. “They assured us we cannot ruin his training. He’s so well-behaved and we’re so blessed to have gotten him.”
Their first official training session covered basic commands, now they’re moving onto how to handle Luka in public. Dahl said she already senses a positive connection between Isabel and Luka.
“He seems like he’s got a real solid foundation,” she said. “He is very responsive, he’s very engaged, he’s very sociable. There are some real encouraging signs here.”
It took Isabel and Luka about 45 minutes to warm to each other when they were introduced. Luka was tired and excited after a long day of travel and Isabel was amped up and unsure about having an animal in her house.
But once they cleared the room of friends and well-wishers, Isabel calmed down and paid more attention to Luka. She threw him a bone, even though it accidentally struck his head. Then she hung upside down on her mom and watched the dog.
“She wanted to get to know him on her terms,” Moore said.
It wasn’t long before she was petting him with her feet and tossing him treats.
Now, when she watches a scene in the movie “Toy Story” where the boy gets a dog, she excitedly tells her mother, “It’s a puppy!”
The situation is not without its challenges.
Moore must look after Isabel, Luka and 21-month-old Nathan. That can sometimes be a lot for a single mom trying to finish an online degree in psychology and fix up a house she bought last month.
Her husband, who died two years ago, shortly before Isabel was diagnosed with autism, was in the military, so the Patriot Guard of Washington is helping get the home in order.
“Everything is coming together,” Moore said.
Stacia Glenn: 253-597-8653