Dogs are often known to be called a But in the case of one in the U.K., one very special dog has come to be a lifeline for him.
The life of Leon Kirby-Bulner—a five-year-old from Andover, a small town in the English county of Hampshire, who has a rare brain condition known as—was completely turned around after he met Fern, the cocker spaniel.
Hayley Kirby, Leon’s mother, told Newsweek: “Fern has opened my eyes and shown me things I never thought possible.”
Nicknamed “Mancub” because he looked like Mowgli, the character from The Jungle Book, Leon was a very unsettled baby from birth, struggling to feed with constant bouts of screaming and getting very little sleep.
She said: “We saw various doctors and tried various medications as the doctors diagnosed reflux, but we always had a feeling there was more to it. “
When he was 14 weeks old, Mancub was fitted with a nasogastric tube for feeding as his weight was dropping fast and he gagged and choked whenever he tried to feed.
It was a difficult two years, trying to get to the bottom of what was causing the screaming before he was diagnosed with Chiari malformation, following some more tests and an MRI scan.
Chiari malformations are “structural defects in the base of the skull and cerebellum,” which is the part of the brain that controls balance, explains the U.S. National Institute on Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
In addition to balance problems, this condition causes severe headaches and choking, his mother said. Mancub had his first neurosurgery in September of 2018, the same year that he was also diagnosed with autism.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is “developmental disability caused by differences in the brain” that can see a person “behave, communicate, interact, and learn in ways that are different from most other people,” the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explains.
Aside from the screaming and being unsettled, Mancub didn’t interact with his family, preferring to sit in a corner rocking. “He didn’t speak and it was almost as if he was in his own little world,” his mother described.
Head banging was one of the major concerns, especially with the Chiari. “When distressed, Mancub will head-butt the floor,” his mother said.
But one fateful day, Mancub’s behavior saw a dramatic change after an unexpected “little bundle” of joy came into his life.
His mother said: “We run a falconry business and we needed a dog to help with some flushing work alongside our hawks. So we went to look at an adult male cocker spaniel that was trained for the job in March 2018.
“However, a little bundle jumped out of a whelping box and snuggled in tightly to me and she won my heart. We left with the puppy and named her Fern,” she said.
The next morning Mancub was introduced to Fern and “his little eyes lit up” and he “showed emotion,” which his family had never experienced from him before.
Mancub started to interact with Fern and wanted to play with her and the feeling was mutual. Over the coming weeks, he made “huge improvements,” coming out of his shell. Instead of sitting in a corner rocking, he and Fern followed each other around and had fun together.
His mother said: “The change in Mancub was remarkable and we knew that we had lost our falconry dog but wanted so much to help Mancub as much as we could.”
So they sent Fern to be officially trained as an assistance dog. “The help she [Fern gives us every day is invaluable” and “the duo do everything together,” his mom said. Fern brings him his clothes in the morning and fetches Mancub’s pump, as he is still pump-fed via a gastrostomy due to his Chiari condition.
They love nothing more than big muddy puddles and lots of water. They bathe together, brush their teeth together, and Fern was even taught how to use a potty “as Mancub was petrified of sitting on one until he saw that Fern could do it,” according to this mother.
“I never imagined a dog could turn our lives around the way in which Fern has and even Mancub’s doctors are in awe of the progress that he has made with Fern at his side,” she added.
Fern also provides “behavior disruption” when Mancub is distressed, which can see him head-butting the floor or hitting himself.
“Fern will get beneath his head to stop him from making contact with the ground,” his mom explained, adding “she has never been trained to do this but has instinctively done it from a young age.”
After some of his symptoms related to his Chiari malformation returned, Mancub had his second neurosurgery in January 2021. He “sailed through the surgery,” but after being discharged from hospital, he developed a cerebrospinal fluid leak from his incision. So he was admitted back to hospital for further surgery where it was also found that he had meningitis.
“It was a very scary time but the little trooper that he is just wanted to get home to Fern and we feel this urge to run with Fern kept him strong throughout,” his mom said.
Mancub still has days where his Chiari condition affects his balance and in these moments, Fern positions herself in a way that allows Mancub to stabilize himself with his hand on her back.
His mother said: “Fern can sense when Mancub is about to get a headache and she will sniff his head repeatedly and then nudge my hand to let me know and this gives us time to medicate Mancub before the headache gets too bad.
She offers “deep pressure” by laying on Mancub when he’s distressed or not coping, which helps to calm him down. Fern “gives him confidence” in situations that he finds difficult, such as shopping in supermarkets, and she accompanies him to hospital appointments.
Seeing the huge difference Fern has made in the life of Mancub, his mother launched the T.A.P (Together Anything is Pawsible) assistance dogs Facebook Group in a bid to “give other parents hope” and show them the changes a dog can make.
The mom said: “We fundraise to purchase and train dogs for other autistic children. So far we have two dogs placed and our third placement will take place later this year.
“Fern has worked wonders for our family,” noting she and Mancub are inseparable. “The bond that they share is so precious and I couldn’t imagine life without her,” his mother said.