Service dog 'Lightning' a miracle for teenage boy

This Christmas, Marty and Teresa Christiansen of rural Merrifield have even more to be grateful for. The Christiansens are blessed with their children - Elaina, 15 and Eli, 13. And this year they are grateful to Lightning, a golden Labrador that ...

Eli Christiansen lays in his living room with his service dog Lightning. (Kelly Humphrey, Brainerd Dispatch - gallery and video)
Eli Christiansen lays in his living room with his service dog Lightning. (Kelly Humphrey, Brainerd Dispatch - gallery and video)

This Christmas, Marty and Teresa Christiansen of rural Merrifield have even more to be grateful for.

The Christiansens are blessed with their children - Elaina, 15 and Eli, 13. And this year they are grateful to Lightning, a golden Labrador that has made their adopted son's life so much better - in fact it has been a Christmas miracle.

Lightning, a service dog, helps Eli, who suffers from fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, a condition caused by an expecting mother consuming alcohol during pregnancy. Eli has sensory processing issues with his sight, smells and touch where everything "is to the extreme." He also has behavioral disorders, which have resulted in several rages or what the family likes to call "meltdowns," some having lasted between three to four hours. Eli also has a hard time with disruptions in routines and can make poor judgement calls.

Lightning came into Eli's life at the end of August and the family's lifestyle has changed for the better. The Christiansens feel blessed as they watch how the beloved service dog follows Eli everywhere and helps him with his daily struggles.

The Christiansens adopted Eli when he was 2 and knew he suffered from FASD. They were not aware of all the challenges their son would face in his life. When EIi was in kindergarten, more challenges came about. The family began looking into the nonprofit organization called 4 Paws For Ability, which states on its website that it is the first and perhaps only organization to place service dogs for children suffering from FASD. However, things were manageable and the family put their research on hold.


The Christiansens said Eli's language skills are average for where a 13-year-old teen should be. However, his social skills are half that and he doesn't understand cause and effect.

As Eli got older his symptoms escalated. Getting Eli ready for school would consist of a few hours and lots of yelling and dragging of feet to get out of bed. Car rides were tough as the movement stressed Eli out. The family also couldn't go to restaurants or be in public for fear that Eli could have a meltdown.

"His behavior was getting worse," said Teresa Christiansen. "He was getting bigger and the things that are easy to control when they are little don't necessarily work when they are bigger than you.

"We are very cautious and really work hard to preserve Eli's dignity in public. People don't understand disabilities they can't see. When a child is having behavioral challenges out in public, you get the stares, you get the looks, you get the comments that are not very nice of being a bad parent. And all you are trying to do is control the situation because you know once they get calm things would get better."

When things began to be tougher for Eli, the Christiansens started the process to work on getting a dog from 4 Paws For Ability. They submitted their application and had to fund-raise $13,000 for the organization. It costs the organization $22,000 to $46,000 to raise and train a service dog. Each family is asked to raise money for the organization.

"We needed to get whatever tools we could to help Eli," Christiansen said.

The family went to Ohio for two weeks of training this past summer. They were able to bring Lightning home before school started. Eli is in the seventh grade at the Lincoln Education Center in Brainerd.

Now it takes 15 minutes for Eli to get ready for school. Eli's parents don't even have to wake him up, Lightning does.


"He is happy when he sees Lightning and he gets up," Christiansen said. "Before we couldn't go to an entire hockey game of Elaina's and so far we've gone to three full games. We now can do stuff as an entire family. Before either I or Marty would have to leave to go with Eli to calm him, and now we don't."

Christiansen said Lightning calms Eli down before any of his behaviors get out of hand.

"Before he would hold my shoulder as we were in the store, but now he has Lightning.

We're not walking on eggshells anymore or waiting for the next outburst. Before we would look around and see what we could do to prevent the next outburst. His behaviors now are more age typical. We see arguments or disagreements versus the full blown outbursts."

If Eli becomes upset and starts yelling, Lightning is the first to respond. The service dog helps him when he needs assistance or is upset.

"Lightning helps me get calm when I get wound up and helps me with any anxiety. He sleeps with me a lot, too," Eli said.

"I like playing with the tennis ball with Lightning."

Eli said his service dog comes to school with him and that is helpful.


Right before Lightning was able to come to school with Eli, the teen said he took off from school one day because he was irritated. Eli's mom had Lightning, and the two took off and found him within 15-20 minutes at Kiwanis Park. Eli has not left school since the service dog has been at his side.

At the end of the day, the Christiansens will take Lightning's work gear off. When this happens, the dog is released and he acts like a normal dog and is playful.

When asked if the Christiansens wish they would have gotten the service dog when Eli was younger, they said, "He came when we needed him most. The timing couldn't have been better. He loves animals."

The Christiansens are grateful to the organizations and individuals who donated to 4 Paws For Ability on behalf of Eli to make it possible for Lightning to work his magic in their lives each day.

JENNIFER STOCKINGER may be reached at or 218-855-5851. Follow me at on Twitter.

Facts about 4 Paws For Ability:

• The organization's mission is to place quality service dogs with children with disabilities and veterans who have lost the use of their limbs or their hearing while in active combat; educate the public regarding use of service dogs in public places.

• The organization has faster turnaround time for training and receipt of a service dog. The process typically takes 12-18 months from start to finish with 9-12 months of this being after the funds are raised. The waiting period for most service dog organizations is 3 or more years.

• They have a 98 percent success rate in placements and a 90 percent success rate with the first dog placed in the home.

• In 2014, there were 23 service dogs placed in Minnesota.

• Service dogs are trained to help individuals who have a variety of conditions including seizures, autism, diabetes, FASD, down syndrome, apraxia, mental health disorders, hearing loss, medically frail children, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and life-threatening illnesses, such as cancer.

• To donate go to or call 937-374-0385 or send a check to 253 Dayton Ave., Xenia, Ohio 45385.

Visit and donate through PayPal or Network for Good. Send a check to 4 Paws For Ability, 253 Dayton Ave., Xenia, Ohio, 45385.

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