Dog of the Day
Sirius - Autism Support Dog
by Carie Broecker
A puppy brightens the life of any child, but for a child with autism, a puppy can be a bridge that connects him with the outside world. Autism affects a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others, and a puppy can help transcend that gap for many children.
When Jennifer and Lou Zeidberg’s son, Morgan, was two years old, he was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Morgan was about 20 months old when the Zeidbergs became concerned that he had not yet started talking, and that many of his milestones such as pointing, making eye contact, and playing with toys were absent. Autism is defined by a certain set of behaviors and is a "spectrum disorder" in that it affects individuals differently and to varying degrees, from mild to severe. Morgan, who is now six years old, is considered moderate on the spectrum. He can talk, but his speech is mostly in rhymes and for the most part is not functional.
Jennifer is a medical doctor and her natural response to Morgan’s diagnosis was to get educated, get involved, and do everything she could to help increase Morgan’s chances of thriving in the face of this challenge.
Getting a dog for the children to raise and to serve as Morgan’s assistance dog is one way the family has come together as a team to help Morgan’s development. Early intervention is crucial for helping autistic children reach their full developmental potential.
When Jennifer began researching service dogs for Morgan, she discovered that many of the organizations providing service dogs had at least a two-year waiting list. Waiting two years would mean Morgan would miss out on having a service dog during some of his most crucial developmental stages.
Then Jennifer learned about North Star Foundation, which was founded in 2000 by Patty Dobbs Gross, whose son had received an assistance dog from Canine Companions for Independence when he was seven years old. Patty used what she had learned from her own experience raising a son with an assistance dog, as the basis for her work with the North Star Foundation.
Patty realized that it is important for dogs placed with autistic children to be placed when they are puppies, and not as fully trained adults. This way, the puppy becomes socialized to the unique needs of the child he is matched with. The needs of the child and training of the dog develop naturally, and the bond between the two is strengthened.
This philosophy appealed to the Zeidbergs. In raising a puppy together, all of their children could take part in the puppy training, with Morgan having the largest role.
Shortly after applying for an assistance dog with North Star Foundation, the Zeidbergs were matched with Sirius, a Golden Retriever. He was four months old when he came to live with the Ziedbergs, and he was already trained to sit, stay, and walk on a lead, and was also socialized and crate trained.
The Ziedbergs have been living with and training Sirius since March 2010. His training continues on a daily basis, and once a week a trainer, Sean Senechal, comes to the house to work with Sirius and the whole family. This includes Morgan’s big brother, Jacob, who is ten, and his little sister, Phoebe, who is four.
Sirius has helped Morgan in many ways. Most importantly, he bridges a communication gap for Morgan. Morgan has trouble communicating with people, but his communication with Sirius is nonverbal. Sirius’s presence calms and soothes Morgan if he becomes agitated. Morgan has a very important role in caring for Sirius. He walks him, feeds him, and brushes him. Being an integral part of Sirius’s care gives Morgan a sense of purpose and focus.
Sirius also provides a bridge from Morgan to other children and to adults. When people see Morgan with Sirius they are more likely to feel comfortable interacting with Morgan because Sirius not only reassures Morgan, he also reassures those who interact with Morgan. Sirius seems to have an innate sense of being a comforter. If anyone in the house is upset or crying or hurt, he will lie down next to them. He is a calming, loving, nonjudgmental presence. What a wonderful gift.
One problem that some families with autistic children can face is having their child wander off. Some autism service dogs, in order to keep a child safe, are trained to be tethered to the child and not leave the property. Fortunately for the Zeibergs, Morgan does not seem to be a wanderer. But they do plan to train Sirius in search and rescue, and to know the command “find Morgan.” If Morgan should wander off or get lost, he would not respond to his name if called, which would make it difficult to find him. Having this extra skill to use if it becomes necessary, will give them peace of mind.
Seeing the special bond between a child and a dog is always heartwarming. The difference an assistance dog like Sirius can make in the life of a special child like Morgan is life changing and life enhancing.
North Star Foundation provides assistance dogs to children whose challenges range from autism to serious medical conditions to grief over the loss of a parent. For more information about supporting North Star or applying for an assistance dog for a child in need, visit www.NorthStarDogs.com or call 860-423-0664.