How a Yellow Lab Helped a Special-Needs Teen

See how a dog named Xander helped Caleb Griswold become the Mayor of Muttland Meadows.

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- Posted on Nov 5, 2018

'Caring for dogs has given Caleb a real purpose in life,' his mom says

Caleb Griswold strides into Muttland Meadows dog park in Grafton, Wisconsin, a man on a mission. Around his waist is a work belt with bug repellent, sunscreen and a dog leash. He pulls a wagon behind him. The wagon contains milk jugs filled with the water Caleb uses to refill the 15 dog bowls scattered around the park. As soon as he’s in the gate, Caleb greets the regulars.

“Hi, Otis! How are you, buddy? Ready to play?” He knows every dog and owner by name. He plays fetch with Lucy while chatting with her owner, Pam. Helps take Freya and Surrey to the car when their owner, Sandy, is ready to leave. Gives Max a belly rub and puts Tillie in time-out if she misbehaves.

Then Caleb waters the flowers, collects litter and restocks the waste bags. If he sees a dog drinking water that’s old, he rushes over. “Here, Lambo, let me give you some fresh water.”

Seventeen-year-old Caleb does all of this on his own, something that might not be so remarkable if it weren’t for the fact that he was born with cerebral swelling and a rare disorder called agenesis of the corpus callosum with colpocephaly. He was missing the band of white matter connecting the left and right hemispheres of the brain. The doctors told his parents, Andy and Laura, that Caleb might not ever be able to sit up, walk or even speak.

Caleb learned to do all of these things and more. At 16, he was doing well in his special education classes, but his obsessive tendencies led to behavioral issues. That’s where the idea for a dog came in. Caleb loved dogs, and his parents thought the responsibility of taking care of one would help Caleb refocus some of his compulsive behaviors.

Caleb chose Xander, a two-year-old yellow Lab, based on a website photo. His parents were hesitant—Labs have a lot of energy. What if Caleb couldn’t keep up? They brought Xander home for a trial period and soon discovered that he was the perfect dog for Caleb. Xander followed Caleb everywhere. He was always calm, never jumping on people or barking. Caleb was smitten with his new friend, and the family officially adopted him.

Later that spring, Caleb decided to check out Muttland Meadows, a seven-acre, off-leash park. Laura was thrilled he was showing an interest in getting outside. When they got to the park, Xander dropped his normally calm demeanor and took off like a racehorse to play with the other dogs. Caleb, meanwhile, looked around.

“There’s no water,” he said to his mom after he got home. “We should bring some tomorrow.”

“Great idea,” Laura said, surprised he wanted to go back so soon. The next day, Caleb was up at the crack of dawn. He filled an empty milk jug with water and headed out the door.

One gallon wasn’t enough to provide for all of the dogs, so Caleb started collecting more empty milk jugs. He now brings 30 jugs of water and a bucket of ice cubes in his wagon. He arrives before 10 a.m. so he can greet two of his dogwalker friends, Kacy and Marlene, and help them get all of the dogs safely inside the fence. Caleb found an ingenious way of collecting the empty water jugs at the end of the day. He uses a dog leash to string the empty jugs together and ties the leash around his waist like a belt.

Kacy dubbed Caleb the Mayor of Muttland Meadows. The moniker stuck. Everyone from the park volunteer coordinator to the local police knows who Caleb is and how important he has become to the park. In the summer, Laura drops him off every morning and he spends the days with his friends there.

“He’s taken everything he does at the dog park on himself,” Laura said. “He looks out for his friends there, and in return they look out for him.” He also looks out for the dogs.

One of the regular parkgoers, Julie, had a dog who went blind. “My dog was only four years old when, because of a disease, the rods in her retinas collapsed,” Julie said. “It was obvious she was depressed. Caleb helped by walking slowly with her so she could relearn to use her nose, ears and paws. ‘Follow my voice,’ Caleb would say. He was a big help as she relearned to use the park.”

When Caleb isn’t performing his self-appointed duties, he sits on a bench by the gate greeting everybody. Not long ago, he noticed a middle-aged woman who stood silently while her dog played. Caleb took it upon himself to introduce her around. Since then, she’s become a regular, chatting with the other dog owners.

Caleb’s reason for going back to the dog park every day is simple. “I love to see my friends—the dogs and the people.”

His role at the dog park has given his obsessive behaviors a positive outlet. He’ll get up in the middle of the night to write cards for his pals or fill water jugs. Caleb recently took a class to learn how to massage dogs. He went through a training program with his dog so Xander could become a Canine Good Citizen. Now the two volunteer at the humane society and visit a nursing home. His parents are amazed at how far he’s come, all because of a dog.

“We thought getting a dog would be good for Caleb, but God had something even bigger in mind,” Laura said. “It has opened doors and given him a real purpose in life.”

After graduating from high school next year, Caleb will do a yearlong internship at the Milwaukee County Zoo—all because of a connection he made at the dog park. The future is bright for the Mayor of Muttland Meadows.

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