For many children on the Spectrum, having a pet may help them focus, if even for a short duration, on tasks such as feeding and daily care. It also offers them an opportunity to learn about animals and their environments. Service dogs offer autistic children a physical connection, which they may be lacking despite school and other therapies; service dogs provide a constant, calming and nonjudgemental companion in the often hectic world of autism. I urge you to support service animal providers in your area. -Ed
Claudia Bolle, 7, hugs her service dog Hanna on her bed after a full day at Lakewood School. Claudia is tethered to the dog throughout the school day, which a has a calming effect on her and makes her day more manageable. She is autistic.
TWIN LAKES — Seven-year-old Claudia Bolle, whose severe autisic impulses caused her to dangerously bolt from one place to another, has a new leash on life.
Now, tethered to Hanna, an autism service dog, Claudia is able to remain calm in public and attend to the world around her.
“I must admit I was skeptical at first, doubting that our little spitfire would tolerate being tethered to anything for one second,” her mother Charlotte said. “To my amazement, not only was she compliant and willing, she was thrilled to do it.”
Trips to the grocery store, a restaurant or a playground — once a source of fear and stress — are now not only possible, but enjoyable.
Claudia wears a small vest that has a hook ring in the front, which is attached by a short leash to Hanna’s harness. A parent holds the dog’s leash. If Claudia tries to flee, Hannah drops flat to the ground and provides gentle, but strong resistance.
“I can’t explain it, but in situations where she would previously fight and resist, throwing herself in the floor or fighting to get away, she is now eagerly hooking herself up to Hanna,” Charlotte said.
“Claudia seems to understand that this dog is helping her control her impulses and allowing her so many opportunities that were previously impossible.”
A new concept
Charlotte said it was during a fit of despair in a park last summer that a total stranger told her about autism service dogs, a relatively new concept.
“It was supposed to be a fun outing for us,” Charlotte recalled, as Claudia had joined a special-needs baseball team and was excited about her first game.
“But, instead of playing baseball, she gave into her impulsive nature and decided to run away. After chasing her for nearly an hour in 95-degree heat, a stranger approached me and asked if I had any idea how an autism service dog could change my life.”
Summertime is always difficult for “kids on the spectrum,” she said, adding her focus at the time was on providing fun opportunities for Claudia, her brother Anthony, 8, and sister Julia, 2. But the idea of a service dog stayed in the back of her mind.
“As a stay-at-home mother, I had envisioned a fun-filled summer with my children, but by July I had long since put away the zoo pass, letting go of that fantasy and succumbing to the reality that leaving the house with her, alone, was simply no longer an option,” she said.
“The lack of structure being out of school — and in our case shortened therapy time — was proving to provoke Claudia’s mischievous side, and I could no longer handle her meltdowns and constant attempts to flee in public.”
The breaking point
Charlotte said she and her husband Tony continued to provide opportunities for the family to enjoy life.
“We always made a point to do it anyway,” Charlotte said. “Even though it would end in tears. ”
Claudia, diagnosed with autism at age 4, is growing in both strength and determination and has no regard for her safety.
“Claudia usually ended up being stuffed into a toddler’s stroller just for her safety and frankly, our sanity,” she said. “I decided to research autism service dogs and found that like most things that are helpful for kids with autism, it came with a hefty price tag.”
The dogs cost between $10,000 and $20,000, and there is usually a one- to two-year wait. The family couldn’t afford it, she thought.
Then came a moment that changed her mind.
“It was a late evening in July, and we were headed down to the lake to watch fireworks,” Claudia said. “She darted off toward the road without a care in the world.”
Traffic was quickly approaching, and they went running and screaming after her. Family friend Tom Blair grabbed Claudia just in time.
“It was then that I knew in my heart we had to have a service dog,” Charlotte said.
Night after night, Claudia and Tony searched the Internet for organizations that provide autism service dogs.
“I would tell them our story, pleading for a shortened wait time and making promises that I would find the money some how, some way to pay them, and the response was always the same,” she said.
Then, one search turned up information on a new group founded in Madison in January called Custom Canines.
“Not only did they not have a waiting list at that time, they had a trained dog ready for placement, and get this — they didn’t charge,” she said.
The not-for-profit organization brought Hanna to their home and provided the training.
Charlotte said Hanna seemed to intuitively understand that this was her job and “Claudia was ‘her girl.’”
The first test
Soon after Hanna arrived three months ago, the boys next door had a lemonade stand.
“I hooked her up to Hanna and brought her over there,” Tony said, adding Anthony was there helping too. “She stayed for over an hour, sat with the other kids, and even at one point I walked away and Hanna’s presence kept her there with the other kids.
With Hanna, the family’s annual trip to the pumpkin patch was the most enjoyable one yet. Claudia was even able to temporarily go untethered for an activity and willingly hooked herself back up to Hanna when she was done.
“She is just peaceful and able to enjoy herself,” Charlotte said.
Anthony said he is happy his sister can now come and watch him play sports and said he enjoys helping take care of Hanna — a big part of owning a service dog.
“I like to play ball, take her for walks and pet her,” he said. “She helps Claudia so much.”
School helps Claudia, Hanna
While Claudia attends second grade at Lakewood School in Twin Lakes in western Kenosha County, Hanna spends most of the day under a desk and tends to snore.
If it wasn’t for an occasional shift of position, you might not even know Hanna was in the class. While it seems Hanna isn’t doing anything as she lies contently under Claudia’s desk, tolerating the 7-year-old’s busy feet, the black labrador is actually helping Claudia stay in her seat and attend to her work.
“It is a miracle,” said special education aide Amie Keske. “It has helped us both having Hanna here. It keeps Claudia grounded and calm.”
Keske, who was recently hired by the district, said she was a little nervous when she learned the student she would be working with came with another helper.
“I have studied and have been trained to work with kids with autism, but I had never heard of an autism service dog and had no training in working with one,” Keske said.
School willing to help
Claudia got Hanna three months ago, and her parents said the district was surprisingly willing to help them integrate the service dog into the school.
“Everything I read about service dogs at school said you had better get your gloves on and prepare for a fight,” Charlotte said.
“In a time when schools are not willing to make such a commitment, the administration was willing to hear us out and lay the groundwork,” Tony added.
Administrator Joseph Price put together a policy and contract for School Board approval, and Claudia’s parents helped the school prepare by providing the training for two special education aides and the supplies (such as rugs and a kennel). The family further helps by cleaning on Fridays.
“I feel so much more comfortable during the day at work knowing they have this tool to control Claudia’s autistic impulses in order for her to have a true educational and social experience,” Tony said.
Speidel said notes were sent to perspective students in the class to make sure their child would be comfortable around the dog and is not allergic.
“She’s part of the class,” the teacher said.
New organization helps family
Hanna came to the Bolles family from Custom Canines Service Dog Academy, a new not-for-profit organization based in Madison.
The organization, formed in January, has already placed nine dogs at no cost with people who are visually impaired, need mobility assistance, or have autism, said founder Nicole Meadowcroft. Another 20 dogs are in training, and a waiting list of people needing the dogs is growing.
Meadowcroft, who began to lose her eyesight in high school and uses a guide dog herself, said the demand for dogs to assist people who have autism is high.
“The autism program has just taken off,” she said. “We exist solely on public donations and support from people with big hearts who believe in our mission of providing dogs free of charge to people with diverse impairments and disabilities.”
Hanna, born in December 2010, was donated to Custom Canines by Anthem Labradors, a breeder in Harvard, Ill., and was trained by the Morga family in Beloit.
The organization trains each service dog to meet the special and unique needs of each client. Placement training with each client takes place in the comfort of the home and around the community.
“We are desperately in need of volunteers to train puppies,” Meadowcroft said.
Trainers lay the foundation the puppy needs to become a dependable companion. They teach the puppy good manners, socialize it to many different environments and teach the dog basic commands.
“We need people who can train the puppies until they start formal harness and obedience training, and skill-specific training,” she said.
Relying on donations
The organization also accepts monetary donations to help cover the cost of food, training equipment, veterinarian bills, crates, vests for the dogs, fuel, leashes and training classes.
Meadowcroft said other non-profit organizations that charge upward of $30,000 for the dogs, do so to recoup the cost it takes to care for and train the dogs.
“Are they worth it? Absolutely,” she said.
How to help
Monetary donations are accepted. Checks made payable to the organization can be mailed to:
Custom Canines Service Dog Academy
6610 Fieldwood Road
Madison, WI 53718
For more information on making a donation, becoming a puppy trainer or obtaining a service dog, call 608-444-9555.
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