PEPPERELL — Livi’s dog does all the things that a little girl could dream of a dog doing.
Three days into living with his new family, Romeo has made himself at home. He has gone on a tour of the 10-year-old’s closet seeing all of her favorite clothes, plays on the floor with her and sleeps on the bed.
“He’s been awesome,” said Jill Twigg, Olivia’s mother.
Romeo, a 15-month-old golden retriever, arrived Saturday from Service Dogs by Warren Retrievers in Virginia. His trainer Cheri Campbell made the delivery and will stay a few days to work with the dog and the family.
Already the young autism service dog has proved his worth.
“Olivia slept through the night for the very first time,” Twigg said. Habits die hard though. Twigg got up “500 times” to check her oldest child and found that everything was fine.
The little girl got overwhelmed at a school event earlier on Monday. She went to the dog for comfort, her mother said, and when she was ready she went back to sit down.
Olivia has Rett Syndrome, a rare neurological disease that affects only girls. Some of the behavior symptoms are very close to autism. Romeo will help with those, calming her when needed and keeping an eye on her.
Romeo cannot halt the progression of Livi’s disease, but he can make her life safer.
The handsome, nearly white dog will get a device that he can use to call 911. A special leash is on the way. Romeo will be tethered to Olivia so that she does not wander off. An adult must also hold the leash.
For two years, Twigg added the duty of fundraising to her day. Romeo came with a $25,000 price tag.
The cost includes visits from a trainer over 18 months. Every couple of months, a trainer will come to Pepperell to work with Olivia and the people around her, training the dog for her needs.
Eventually Romeo will be able to go to school with his girl. The school system is ready.
“Mrs. C. went above and beyond,” Twigg said. The principal at Ashby Elementary School, Anne Cromwell-Gapp, has been very welcoming to the service dog.
In fact, she asked if Twigg could bring the dog in regularly so Olivia’s classmates could get used to him. Over the summer, Olivia’s aide will come by the house to learn to work with the dog.
“She’s going to be with the same kids all of her life,” Twigg said. The children will go through fifth grade in Ashby, middle school at Nissitissit in Pepperell and then on to the high school.
Rett girls have periodic regressions and most do regain as much as the Pepperell girl does. Olivia is doing remarkably well, said family friend Kelly Kelly.
But each time Olivia regresses and skills like speaking and swallowing diminish, she gains back less afterward. At some point, probably around puberty, she will lose her walking and speaking skills, Twigg said.
In the meantime, Romeo is learning to do his job.
Olivia was playing at the table while people visited. She spoke to her mom and moved to the floor under the table to play. Romeo lay on the floor close to her.
“They bonded right away,” Campbell said. “He just focused right on her.”
Campbell’s job is to not just teach the dog, but to help Olivia learn to rely on the dog.
If she is overwhelmed she can just go straight to the dog without asking permission.
Deep-pressure therapy often works well with autistic behaviors, Campbell said. “He can be taught to lay right on her.”
The people who work with Livi also need to get to know the dog. The police escorted Romeo to his new home on Saturday morning. They and the Fire Department are briefed on the dog.
If something happens at home and Olivia needs to be transported, Romeo goes with her. Responders need to know because the dog does not wear a service vest at home.
The Nashoba Valley Voice played a role in getting money to purchase the dog, running articles about Livi and Twigg’s goal to get a service dog for her daughter.
Fundraising was coming down to the wire at the end of 2016. If Twigg did not have the money in hand soon, Olivia would be bumped to the back of the line. They needed $5,000.
Before the story was in even print, Mike Morgan, morning producer at Boston radio station Mix 104.1 and member of the North Middlesex Regional School District Committee, spotted it online and invited the Twiggs to be on the show.
Within 20 minutes, they raised the final amount and more. When the folks at Ayer Veterinarian Clinic went online to donate, they saw that the Twiggs had enough money for the dog. Instead of money, they offered free care for the animal.
On Monday, Romeo had his first visit to his new vet. He jumped right into the back of the mini-van and tucked in beside Olivia.
Romeo is doing well with Livi’s brothers Adam, 8, and 2-year-old Aiden. Everyone, including the hairy one, already jumps into Twigg’s king-sized bed when morning rolls around.
Thanks to the generosity of the community, the girl, her family and the dog are getting everything figured out.
Follow Anne O’Connor on Twitter @a1oconnor.