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The dog that Angel Yaklin credits with encouraging her autistic son to talk more has brown eyes, black fur and a working knowledge of German.
Sookie, a German shepherd, sat when she heard “sitz” and laid down when Yaklin said “platz.” The “doggy push-ups” were part of a class in a Woodruff Road church gym, where Sookie and four other canines were learning to help autistic children.
Yaklin said her 4-year-old son, who was non-verbal as recently as August, now comes home and says, “Hello, Sookie!”
“It’s the sweetest thing in the world,” she said recently. “It’s only been about 20 days, but so far it has been an awesome experience.”
Dogs for Autism has begun a push to raise money in hopes of hiring more trainers to help satisfy the demand, Nye said. Families are charged nothing to take the dogs home.
A unanimous vote by Mauldin City Council allowed dogs in parks by special exception, helping clear the way for a fund-raising event that would involve dogs launching themselves into a 29,000-gallon pool.
While some children become buddies with their dogs, trainers in Dogs for Autism focus on teaching the canines to keep their human companions out of harm’s way, she said.
The dogs are shown how to use their bodies to block children from bolting, a common problem with autism, Nye said. When children do run off or tuck themselves into a hiding spot, the dogs can help sniff them out, she said
Dogs use their noses and tongues to nudge children’s hands away from light sockets and other potential dangers, Nye said.
They bark to alert parents of trouble, she said.
To the children, the dog becomes a “furry tattle tale,” Nye said. But making the dog the bad guy helps parents who are constantly saying “don’t” go to their children with positive messages, she said.
“It’s a real balance changer in the parent-child relationship,” Nye said.
The dogs undergo some of their training in parents’ homes, and some in the gym at Advent United Methodist Church.
Dogs are trained with German commands to help prevent confusion when they go into the real, English-speaking world. They learn to stay on task, even with distractions.
As Yaklin walked Sookie around the gym, Nye threw a set of keys that jangled to the floor nearby. The dog barely looked.
Most of the dogs are a breed of German shepherd with herding instincts that rival those of a collie, Nye said.
Scott McDaniel of Simpsonville has one of the program’s few Labradors, Henry.
McDaniel said when the family leaves the house, their youngest child, age 5, must be watched constantly by either him or his wife. He hopes Henry will help free up a hand.
“The goal would be to make the dog sit and have a tether between the dog and the child so the child cannot run off,” McDaniel said.
Dogs for Autism has graduated 38 dogs, most since 2006, Nye said. About two years and at least $15,000 goes into training each one of them, she said.
The program employs one trainer and contracts with three others, while depending on volunteers to help with training and giving the dogs a place to live until they are placed with families, Nye said.
Philip Harris, a teacher at HOPE Academy, said he has seen his students leave the classroom tense and come back calm after a session with dogs.
His students are in grades 7-12 and most have Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism characterized by difficulties in social situations, he said.
One girl who didn’t want to go out in public now attends church more regularly and has even gone to events at the BI-LO Center thanks to the help of her dog, Harris said.
“They don’t have to worry about screwing up, saying something that somebody’s going to get mad about,” Harris said.
One of the group’s volunteers, Marty Fiorito, brought an energetic German shepherd named Scarlett to the church gym for class.
Training a dog to help autistic children isn’t much different from teaching it to fetch a pair of shoes or walk around a show ring, he said. While the tasks are different, the techniques are the same, Fiorito said.
“A dog is like a baby,” said Fiorito, president of the Dog Obedience Club of Greenville. “You have to treat it like a little kid.”
Most parents who say they want a dog don’t understand how much work they have to put into them, Nye said. In addition to classes, parents need to learn to be consistent to keep dogs on task, Nye said.
“They think they’re bringing home Lassie,” she said. “They’re not.”
Ongoing training makes having a dog the equivalent of adding an extracurricular activity to a child’s schedule, Nye said.
Dogs for Autism maintains ownership of its dogs and reserves the right to take them back if they end up spending all their time in a back yard doghouse or are mistreated, Nye said.
The Mauldin event that would raise money for the group has been scheduled for April 19-21 and would be hosted by Palmetto Dock Dogs at Sunset Park. Spectators would be asked for $2 donations.