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by Alexandra and David Mize
Our son Ben is diagnosed as "atypical," which means he has a mild form of autism. His companion dog, Abby, has made an enormous difference in his life. Although we know she has an important job to do, Ben just flat-out adores her; she's his best friend.
Dancing to a Different Drummer
Ben is a little different from most children his age: He needs to learn typical social skills that most children intuit. For example, even though he craves friends and social interaction, he doesn't pick up on common social cues, so it's hard for him to compromise when playing, to understand when the game is over, or to not interfere with other kids playing with their toys.
Also, Ben's mind is very fixed. If he were to stub his toe at the zoo, he might decide the zoo is a "bad place" and never want to go there again. He's also highly anxious and has trouble sleeping. And although we all know kids throw temper tantrums, it's very difficult for Ben to "let go" of a situation once he's upset.
Assistance Dog Is a Friend in Need
My husband and I knew a dog's unconditional love and nonverbal communication would benefit Ben, but we worried a puppy might behave too chaotically or an adult dog who barked or jumped a lot would be too scary. In other words, we wanted a dog for Ben, but it had to be just the right dog. We are indebted to Canine Partners for Life for their understanding of our unique family and for their diligence in finding the perfect companion dog match for us.
CPL paired Ben with Abby, a 2-year-old female black Labrador Retriever, a year ago to help with Ben's social skills and for emotional support. The bonding between Ben and Abby was immediate, and the effect on Ben's behavior was simply dramatic. The day after we adopted Abby, my son's severe vocal tics (throat clearing, grunting and snorting) disappeared. They didn't come back for two months, which was the longest stretch of time Ben had ever experienced without this problem. (A conflict with a child at school triggered the behavior again.)
A Dog's Comfort and Joy
I supervise the relationship but limit my interaction with Abby. She is Ben's dog, so he is responsible for feeding her, and her crate is in his bedroom. When Ben goes into another room, I make sure Abby follows him. She is his constant companion. If Ben is upset, crying or in a "time out," he snuggles Abby and is comforted by her. For a child who was never able to self-soothe, this is a giant behavioral breakthrough.
Ben's bond with Abby is profound. In kindergarten, the children were asked to finish the sentence, "Peace is…." Ben wrote "snuggling Abby" and drew a picture of the two of them together. Before we adopted Abby from CPL, he would never have been able to finish that sentence.
About Canine Partners for Life
For more than 20 years, Canine Partners for Life (CPL) has been dedicated to training service dogs, service alert dogs, home companion dogs and residential companion dogs to assist individuals with a wide range of physical and cognitive disabilities. Based in southeastern Pennsylvania, CPL has, to date, placed more than 500 dogs nationwide. CPL is an acknowledged leader in the service dog industry and is an accredited member of Assistance Dogs International (ADI). Find out more at www.k94life.org.
Photo: Corbis Images
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Pets | Dogs: My Dog Is My Peace: An Autistic Boy's Story