Tuesday, April 21, 2009
Guide dogs excel in new mission: autism
By Brian J. Howard by LoHud
OSSINING - There were a few secrets being kept the day Tricia Zarro invited a guide-dog trainer to her home in January 2008 to talk about finding a canine companion for her son.
Zarro hadn't yet told her husband, Ernie, or their three children that the meeting was about getting a specially trained dog for Danny, 6, their youngest, whose condition was diagnosed as autism.
Meanwhile, the trainer Caroline McCabe-Sandler of the Yorktown-based Guiding Eyes for the Blind, didn't tell Zarro she had the perfect dog in mind.
After the meeting, as Zarro walked McCabe-Sandler to her car at the end of the driveway, she turned and made a heartfelt plea.
"I just want this dog to help my family heal," Zarro said.
That's when McCabe-Sandler confided in her about Shade, a 2-year-old black Labrador who had essentially flunked out of guide-dog training.
Yet "flunked" might be too harsh a word for a dog who displayed nearly every trait necessary for providing the assistance and companionship needed by those without sight.
She was just too tentative in situations that call for split decisions.
By any other measure, Shade, who joined the Zarro family March 28, 2008, is the perfect dog.
"I never even let Ernie or the kids in on this," Zarro said. "It was such a dream."
Heeling Autism, a fledgling Guiding Eyes program, has since placed six more autism-service dogs with families.
The dogs' purpose is to provide safety and therapeutic companionship to children with autism, a neurological disorder marked by delays in speech and social interaction.
Each dog's training costs roughly $45,000. As with the guide dogs that the nonprofit Guiding Eyes trains and places, its autism-service dogs are provided free, with the cost entirely offset by private grants and donations.
While autism-service dogs are becoming more prevalent, many organizations that provide them require families to pay $10,000 to $15,000.
From a therapeutic standpoint, the dog serves as a point of focus for autistic children, enabling them to maintain calm.
From a safety perspective, the dogs wear a service vest to which the child is tethered while in public places.
Zarro described seeing Danny and Shade walk through Manhattan, with her holding Shade's leash as Danny walked safely alongside.
The result is freedom for both parent and child.
Routine outings to stores or to the sports events of older sisters Madeline and Kylie are made more manageable and more enjoyable with Shade's help.
On family hikes, Danny no longer straggles or needs to be carried.
The Guiding Eyes program emphasizes the entire family's acceptance of a service dog, a key benefit, Ernie Zarro said.
Despite his worries, he said his daughters have become both protective and proud of Shade.
"You always think about Danny and the dog, but you don't think about how attached the girls would become," he said.
Shade sleeps in Danny's room, keeps a watchful eye on him around the house, and is there with him during doctor's visits and therapy.
On a recent afternoon, the 65-pound dog gamely hopped up on the family's backyard trampoline, looking unsure of her footing but determined to stay near Danny, who bounced spryly while belting out "Hound Dog."
Little about Danny suggests autism. He smiles, laughs and is quite verbal.
Much of his progress is attributable to his tightknit, adoring family and a constant whirlwind of therapies: speech, physical and occupational.
And then there's Shade, who is there for Danny, helping him reach his potential.
When Tricia Zarro wrote to Guiding Eyes about obtaining a dog who hadn't completed guide-dog training, Heeling Autism didn't yet exist.
A year and a half passed before she heard from McCabe-Sandler, who in the meantime had attended an Assistance Dogs International conference in Toronto in 2007.
There she heard a talk by Maureen Morin, the mother of one of the first children to receive a trained autism dog.
McCabe-Sandler said the idea just clicked.
Guiding Eyes was seeking ways to expand its community mission and to make the most of the training given to dogs who don't become guides.
"We had this incredible group of dogs that we could do more with," she said.
Mary Jo Jacobs' family was the last in the Heeling Autism's pilot program, which placed seven dogs in the greater New York area. Jacobs' son Andrew, 9, received Iota, a 3-year-old black Labrador, on Feb. 20.
"Andrew's getting so much affection," said Jacobs, a New Rochelle mother of four. "He's relating so much to the dog. He always wants to be with him, and he pulls him up close."
Like Danny, Andrew does not take his dog to school, though autism-service dogs merit the same full public access as guide dogs.
One of Iota's benefits to Andrew has been the way the dog fosters communication. Andrew eagerly shares an array of details and stories to others about his dog.
"For him to use the dog to talk about the dog so that he's got a conversation starter is a huge plus," Jacobs said. "Anything else is icing on the cake."
McCabe-Sandler has observed the change the dogs she trains make, not only on the children, but also on their families as a whole.
The best example is the way the dogs can simply make the children laugh.
"I'm a mom, and it's so easy to get my children to laugh," she said. "For those parents, it's not. So to see these spontaneous bursts of laughter, it's just magic to me."
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