Due to hemiplegic cerebral palsy, Gavin’s right side is not as strong as his left, so he holds Elmer’s leash in his right hand, which pulls his arm down and changes his gait to appear neurotypical.
Gavin lost peripheral vision on his right side after his accident, so Elmer walks on the boy’s right to act as a buffer in crowds. The friendly dog makes physical therapy seem like a game instead of a chore.
“Throwing the ball to me 10 times is therapy,” Swearingen said. “Throwing the ball for Elmer 20 times is fun.”
Before teaming up with Elmer, Gavin struggled with reading. But he now reads books to Elmer every single day. They particularly love the “Elephant and Piggy” books by Mo Willems.
“We were all kind of at our end of what to do next, and all it took was Elmer. Now Gavin’s reading almost to grade level. He’s reading for fun and enjoyment,” Swearingen said.
It’s a remarkable turnaround since the accident, when doctors told the Swearingens that Gavin would never walk, talk or even know them. But thanks to neuroplasticity, Gavin’s brain has “remapped” onto the right side and he continues to improve with Elmer’s help.
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The family – which includes Gavin’s father, Brad, and sisters Alyson, 12, and Makenna, 9 – faces everything in life together. Each night at the dinner table, they take turns sharing what they’re grateful for.
“I can’t say this is a path that I ever expected to be on, but we are definitely going to make the most of it and try and remain grateful for it because gratitude is the opposite of sadness,” Swearingen said. “We choose gratitude.”
Despite all of Gavin’s challenges, the word most people use to describe him is “joyful,” according to his mom.
“I think that’s actually why having a dog has worked really well because it’s the same personality,” she said. “They find the best, and every day it’s like they wake up and it’s a brand-new day and they’re both just excited to go play outside.”