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Sooner trains dogs, changes Lives

Published in the Oklahoma Daily: Steven Zoeller, For the Daily

Psychology Junior Sam Mack walks up the South with Drake, the golden retriever she's training to assist children with autism. Mack spends roughly a year with each dog she trains, during which they live with her and follow her everywhere.

It’s hard for psychology junior Sam Mack to skip class unnoticed. When she’s not there, it’s obvious even in the big lecture halls. Her presence isn’t easily forgotten. It’s hard for psychology junior Sam Mack to skip class unnoticed. When she’s not there, it’s obvious even in the big lecture halls. Her presence isn’t easily forgotten. This is also true outside of class. Heads turn as she walks around campus and strangers frequently stop her to chat. On some days she’s approached by as many as 15 people she doesn’t know. They all want to meet her two escorts, Drake and Huckleberry, who trod faithfully at her side, both wearing turquoise vests that say “Good Dog! Autism Companions.” On each vest is a patch — “In Training.” Since the dogs go everywhere with Mack, it applies to them at every moment. It’s part of a 24/7 regimen to adapt Drake and Huckleberry to a variety of settings. “When we’re walking around here, and [Drake] sees a squirrel or something, she has to know it’s not OK to run off after the squirrel,” Mack said. “When I’m in class, she’s learning that she has to be calm and just lie there.” Mack, 25, works for the non-profit organization, Good Dog! Autism Companions, and has coached these particular canines for months. Though the organization is based in California, Mack has continued to train dogs under its umbrella since moving to Oklahoma nearly six months ago. Growing up on an Illinois farm primed Mack to love animals, and professional training at Bergin University of Canine Studies has helped her express this love by preparing puppies for the day they’ll be sent off to help people. Mack’s passion and skill for training certainly shows. Drake and Huckleberry keep pace with her as they walk, rarely falling behind or bounding ahead. They don’t bark or pull at their leashes, despite the abundant strangers walking by and the squirrels frolicking on the grounds.

In August, Drake is scheduled to be placed with teacher or a therapist at a facility that works with children with autism. Huckleberry has not yet been placed, but in a few months, he'll be matched with a family who has a child with the disability. Service dogs are coveted for more reasons than their ability to go on walks without chasing squirrels. Mack has taught Drake and Huckleberry to recognize a host of special commands. At her word, they provide what’s called “deep pressure” by lying across a child to calm them, and they can gently interrupt disruptive body motions by nuzzling them. While these skills are helpful, Mack says they aren’t the most important benefits of having an autism service dog. “If the mother takes a child grocery shopping … and the child starts stimming in the grocery store, like flapping or screaming or throwing a tantrum on the ground or something, the general public might make extremely rude comments,” Mack said. “But when the child has a dog with them, the comments are a lot more friendly.” Parents are regularly bombarded with harsh comments, said Mack, such as “Get your child under control,” and, bizarrely, “Your child needs an exorcism." Somebody that might be uncomfortable because my son is screaming and flapping his hands now can look at the dog,” Sylvester said. “They see the patch, so now a light switch goes off. And instead of my son being ridiculed and judged, he’s celebrated and loved because people understand why he’s acting that way.” As the mother of a boy with autism, Laura Sylvester, the founder of Good Dog!, has received these sorts of comments herself. Experiences like these were partly what inspired her to start the organization. She knew service dogs could encourage people to think twice before they judge.

This has the effect of bringing families closer together, because one of the parents is no longer as pressured to stay home with the child to avoid distressful public outings, Sylvester said. She said this is a byproduct of the dog’s role as a “social bridge,” or a kind of ambassador on the child’s behalf. The dog’s social bridge function is emphasized by the fact that most service dogs are golden retrievers and Labrador retrievers, two popular and approachable breeds. These breeds also tend to exhibit the most frequently sought after qualities in service dogs: mellowness and sociability. In addition to these traits, puppies destined to become service dogs must also match the energy of their owner. Because autism is more of a category of conditions than it is a condition itself, it can sometimes be tricky to match a dog to a person with the disability, Sylvester said. “You might have one child with autism who wants the dog near them, with them, lying on them, providing deep pressure by leaning into them all the time,” Sylvester said. “Then you might find another child with autism who wants the dog there, but only when they want it there. They want to go to the dog. They don’t want the dog following them everywhere.”

Despite the challenge, miracles become possible when the right dog meets the right child. Take Jack Petersen from California, for example. Prior to getting his service dog, Biscuit, from Good Dog!, his mother, Jill, says he could scarcely make it to school without some sort of issue.

“Before we had a service dog, Jack would not get on the school bus,” Petersen said. “And the bus driver and I would have to follow him and try to coax him onto the school bus.” While at school, Jack Petersen often had meltdowns. He would leave the classroom if he had trouble with an activity, or he would cry and run away if he perceived the other children were making fun of him. Getting Biscuit didn’t rid Jack Petersen of his disability, but Jill Petersen said it has drastically improved his social situations. Tasks such as riding the bus or transitioning between public places are no longer such a struggle. Jack Petersen feels comfortable in more environments when he’s accompanied by Biscuit, whom he calls his “posse,” Jill Petersen said. “He’s doing great, ” Jill Petersen said. “And everyone knows his name at school, and he gets high-fives from the kids walking down the halls of the school instead of pushing or people looking at him weird.” Ryan Tilton, a Salem State student with autism who blogs on autism-related topics, also firmly endorses service dogs to deal with the disability. Like many who fall on the autism spectrum, she can lapse into sensory overload in some settings. “Things like sounds I hear all at once and have to work to separate them out,” said Ryan. “I am also hypersensitive to light and have limited vision on bright sunny days … I become easily overwhelmed and often confused and a bit disoriented.” Tilton is currently training a service dog to assist with these issues. She’s teaching the dog, Aragorn, to provide deep pressure, as well as to alert her to her own name when people call it. She says these skills help her on a daily basis. “Generally, I would say my service dog makes going out and doing things manageable,” Tilton said. “I know if I go into sensory overload or I shut down, I will be able to have the help I need to get out and get through it. I won't have to rely on a person, and that is a huge benefit for me.” Stories like those of Tilton and Jack Petersen are part of what fuels the passion trainers like Mack have for their jobs. It’s enough to soften the blow when it comes time for them to separate with the animal they’ve spent so long with bonding. Mack concedes it’s “bittersweet.” But she said it would be hard to train a dog without developing a bond in the first place, and she’ll get over her eventual separation from Drake and Huckleberry because of the good it will do for other people. “There’s something about working with dogs and helping people at the same time,” Mack said. “It feels really good.”

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