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Man’s Best Friend Comes Through for Autistic Children

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Lucas Verschall, 6, who is autistic, loves walking his new friend Sam, an assistance dog his family got five months ago from the North Star Foundation in Storrs, CT. Autistic children typically relate very well to dogs. (Courtesy of Jeff Verschell)

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Jeff Verschell and his sons Lucas, 6, who is autistic, and Hunter, 4, took their assistance dog Sam with them to the pumpkin patch this Halloween. (Courtesy of Jeff Verschell)

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The Verschell family with Sam, their assistance dog, visiting SeaWorld. (Courtesy of Jeff Verschell)

After 8-year-old Danny Gross was sent to his room for snatching his younger sister’s new umbrella, his mother found him sobbing on his bed. But Danny wasn’t upset about being punished for bullying his sister.

Instead, he was distressed because hours earlier, Pennie, the family’s golden retriever, had been left alone in the car for a few minutes. Danny, who is autistic, has a special bond with his 2-year-old pet.

“But what must she have been thinking during those five minutes?” Danny wondered aloud as his mother comforted him.

Like Danny, many children on the autistic spectrum relate better to animals than to people. Autistic children typically have trouble making verbal exchanges and understanding complex social cues, neither of which is necessary to become a dog’s best friend.

“Dogs are like half steps, because for kids with autism, words get in the way of their relationships,” said Danny’s mother, Paddy Dobbs Gross, who runs North Star Dogs in Storrs, Conn., an organization that breeds, trains and places service dogs for autistic children.

An estimated one out of 150 children has a disorder on the autistic spectrum, according to a 2007 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and a growing number of parents are looking to service dogs to provide protection and companionship for their children. Genevieve Athens, president of the Autism Society of Oregon, has noticed a significant increase in demand for these dogs over the past four or five years, though it’s difficult to get an accurate count since the organizations that provide these dogs aren’t regulated.

“A well-trained service dog would be just wonderful,” said Dr. James Loomis, a child and family psychologist. The dog would provide autistic children with “a social response, but one they can understand and relate to.” Loomis specializes in autism-spectrum disorders and works with the Center for Children with Special Needs in Glastonbury, Conn.

Simple behaviors like making eye contact, engaging in conversation and shaking hands do not come naturally to autistic people. It can take autistic children years to master simple conversations, and answering repetitive questions like “What’s your dog’s name?” provides valuable opportunities for practice.

How much autistic children benefit socially from owning a dog depends on the child, and experts are quick to note that every child on the autistic spectrum is different. It is important to manage parents’ expectations, said Elisa Irlam, director of training at the Western Guide and Assistance Dog Society in Alberta. Some children are unaffected, and those who are not naturally drawn to dogs are unlikely to show positive results. “The only thing we can guarantee is safety,” she said.

It’s critical, however, that parents investigate both the trainer and the temperament of the dog before buying one. Dave and Kim Gallo, of Lake Oswego, Ore., raised $13,000 to purchase a Labrador retriever named Oscar from Autism Service Dogs of America last summer for their severely autistic 6-year-old son, Michael. But there were quickly signs of trouble.

“I noticed his hackles were up when he was playing with my kids,” Kim said. “I couldn’t believe it.” On the second day, the dog bit Kim on the hand, leaving a deep wound. When the Gallos went to return the dog, the organization wouldn’t refund the full purchase price, keeping $3,000 and telling them they were “difficult,” Kim said.

Kim believes his trainers failed to check Oscar's temperament carefully. “I think they saw a dog at the pound and just said, ‘Hey, it’s a Lab,’ ” she said.

Though she admits that the dog may have had underlying problems, Priscilla Taylor, director of Autism Service Dogs of America, said she believes that the Gallos aggravated them by not allowing the dog to acclimate to his new environment, a process which can be stressful for any dog. Families are asked to give the dog a week to adjust to its new surroundings before asking it to interact with children and execute commands, she said.

Taylor also notes that Oscar came from a rescue, not a shelter, and that her organization is now working more with breeders.

Some organizations breed dogs themselves, some get dogs from shelters, and some train dogs that have been rejected from other service-dog programs--for example, dogs that are too sensitive to be wheelchair dogs, a job that requires them to ignore people who approach them.

Gross, for example, breeds 80 percent of her dogs, primarily Labrador and golden retrievers, in her home, and the rest come from carefully selected breeders. Autistic children can be less gentle than typical children, so it’s important to socialize dogs with autistic children from the time they are puppies.

“They might crowd a dog, stick a finger in a dog’s ear or pet against the grain of the fur,” Gross said.

Autistic children are extremely sensitive to noise, lights and smells and may break down when they become overwhelmed. These meltdowns are sometimes characterized by rocking, hand-flapping and screaming. Passersby may mistake them for ordinary tantrums, to the embarrassment of harried parents.

“People will take a look and say, ‘That child is just a brat,’ but this gives them a cue that maybe something else is going on,” said Irlam, who runs the guide-dog firm in Canada. Service dogs can also help parents control uncooperative children and, with specialized training, can help ensure the safety of children who are inclined to run away.

Her group trains a child and dog by attaching the child to the dog’s vest with a leash clipped to the child’s belt. Another leash stretches from the dog to the parent.

If the child tries to bolt, the parent gives the dog a “stay” command, and the child is anchored in place. Parents are able to restrain a child without having to grab a wrist or hand, which can be very upsetting for autistic children, who often don’t like to be touched.

The autistic children “don’t mind the touch and feel of the dog, but to be restrained by their parents--they don’t like that,” Irlam said. “This allows families to go out without worrying about the child darting off.”

Before Shelly Wilson got Junior, a Siberian husky and golden retriever mix, from the Gifted Animal Placement program in Haslet, Texas, in July, she would beg the neighbors to watch her son Hunter for 25 minutes so she could go to the store for milk.

Hunter, 7, has Asperger’s syndrome, a disorder on the autistic spectrum, and experienced meltdowns nearly every time he went out with his mother.

“Prior to us getting Junior, going out in public was an absolute nightmare,” she said.

Recently, Hunter refused to leave the toy department at Target, though his mother told him it was time to go. Previously, this situation might have triggered a meltdown. But Wilson ordered Junior, who was attached to Hunter by a leash, to come, and Hunter followed quietly.

“C’mon, Mom, that wasn’t fair,” was his only objection.

E-mail: ac2568@columbia.edu