TODAY | March 21, 2012
>>> we're back now with the touching story of one young girl and her best friend , a dog giving her a chance to really be a kid. "today" national correspondent amy robach has more on this very special friendship. amy , good morning.
>> matt, good morning to you. from the moment she was born, 3-year-old alita hasn't been able to crawl, walk or run very far due to a short cord connecting her to some very heavy oxygen tanks . but now her life line runs right beside her, giving this toddler a new lease on life. by all accounts, mr. gibbs looks like any other golden doodle puppy, loving some scrunches, and some naps. but mr. gibbs is here to work.
>> good job. make sure you're turned on. all right, let's go.
>> let's go.
>> we're going to go play? let's go play.
>> reporter: his boss, 3-year-old alita knoblauch.
>> what do you got to do with mr. gibbs ?
>> down. down.
>> good boy.
>> reporter: this special little girl suffers from neurohyperplasia in infancy. nehi is an extremely rare lung disease requiring alita to breathe with the aid of an oxygen tank . only 500 children in the united states have ever been diagnosed with it. alita was born premature and had breathing issues from the start. but as months went by, her parents, debbie and aaron , had an instinct something was ver wrong.
>> debbie was able to look up what all the tests were that they were doing, you know. the first one, you know, she would have made it to four months. and so you go through two weeks of just not being able to help.
>> reporter: once the nehi diagnosis was made, doctors told the knoblauchs two things, they needed to live utah and live in a lower elevation, and alita would need an oxygen tank at all times to continue breathing.
>> she was already falling behind on her milestones, and she didn't sit up until she was eight months old. as soon as she got on the oxygen she started catching up quickly.
>> reporter: but catching up presented a new problem for a toddler attached to ten-pound oxygen tanks .
>> you know, when she crawled it wasn't a big deal because she couldn't get that far away . when she started walking we had to come up with something different. we saw a show on tv about service dogs , and that's when it clicked. i, you know, i don't need a cart for her, i need a bottle that's going to follow her.
>> grab her leash. what do you tell him?
>> come let's go.
>> reporter: enter mr. gibbs . the knoblauchs found dog trainer ashley kensly and proposed the idea of training a service dog to carry the oxygen tanks .
>> he's trained to do everything he needs to do. but for a service animal that he's at with a 3-year-old, that's kind of the difficult part.
>> reporter: but so far mr. gibbs has passed the test and alita has a newfound freedom. what's your favorite thing to do outside?
>> reporter: you have mr. gibbs by you when you're swinging?
>> he gets kicked in the head .
>> he gets kicked in the head sometimes.
>> reporter: but lucky for mr. gibbs he's resilient and has a whole lot of patience. what do you say to mr. gibbs ?
>> reporter: down. do you have other things you say to him?
>> reporter: like what?
>> at ease.
>> reporter: at ease? and now the knoblauchs can be at ease, knowing their daughter is in good hands because of a new friend with four paws. who is your best friend ?
>> he is.
>> so cute. mr. gibbs and alita hope to go to kindergarten together in a new years given alita the kind of independent childhood her parents had always hoped for. matt?
>> all right, amy , thank you very much. alita and mr. gibbs are here along with her parents aaron and debbie . good morning to everyone. we don't even have to do an interview. let's just watch this. i mean this is so cute to watch them together.
>> and it must be such a change of life for all of you.
>> whoa. look.
>> it really has been. he's been a great addition to the family. and just awesome help for her.
>> when you first received this diagnosis, you had to immediately think, what kind of quality of life is my little girl going to have. and what were your hopes and fears ?
>> well, i was scared she would be limited by the length of her oxygen tube. so we immediately started looking at ways to help her get around the house. and just like it said in the episode, when she started walking we had to adjust the way we did things.
>> reporter: aaron , i understand you came up with a lot of devices over the years.
>> you were kind of a handyman and you create things she'd be able to drag around with her.
>> but it was your idea to work with the service dog .
>> well, once i realized that the cart just wasn't going to work forever, we had to come up with something. and when we saw the service dog that was the click, that was the trigger. i was like i need a bottle that will follow her.
>> and talk to me about the learning curve here. i mean, you know, mr. gibbs trained as a service dog . but this is an unusual function to perform.
>> most service dog agencies won't talk to you until your child is older, 5 or 7. so it hasn't been done with a child this young. so the challenge is for him to listen to alita . he does really well with debbie and i but it's tough for him to listen to a 3-year-old.
>> was it hard to train -- or to teach alita to be able to give those commands we heard?
>> actually. she knows them really well. she actually gets frustrated when he doesn't listen. that's part of the process that we're working on right now is, you know, helping him understand that that is the command, and you know. she doesn't speak real clearly sometimes.
>> what about when kindergarten comes, i mean, will mr. gibbs be allowed to go to kindergarten giving her some semblance of normalcy?
>> that's -- that's why we're doing all this so early is we're hoping that by the time she is in kindergarten it's all figured out and there's no more training left to be done and he just goes to school.
>> alita mr. gibbs is a little goofy, isn't he?
>> does he like -- i think he likes to tickle you like this, doesn't he? sometimes does he take naps with you?
>> is it fun?
>> it is? but at night, mr. gibbs gets the night off, and you hook her up to a more stable --
>> yes, a concentrator that works all night so he's down.
>> i know you want to give people more information, or if they have -- first of all there's only 500 cases, as amy mentioned, of young people in this country with this particular disorder. but what should people know. how can they get more information?
>> they can go to the child foundation website at
www.child-foundation.com, and there's information about all the different -- a list of doctors that specialize in that kind of treatment.
>> i think we should mention you have another daughter who's 4 months old. a little baby here in the studio.
>> the reality is, they don't know yet. they don't even know enough to know what causes it yet. so that's why we're trying to do the research to figure that out.
>> well, alita , you seem like you're having a really good time with your friend mr. gibbs . thank you for being here. did you enjoy watching yourself on tv?
>> you did?
>> good. mr. gibbs , thank you. folks, thanks for being here. we're back right after these messages and your local news.