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Wesley, a 12-year old boy with high-functioning autism, has a four-legged friend named Mully. The friendship is significant for Wesley; he was socially challenged prior to being paired with the yellow Labrador assistance dog. As is common among autistic children, Wesley couldn’t hold eye contact, maintain a conversation, engage in play or pick up on social cues.
Mully, or as Wesley calls him, “The Mullet”, “The Mull” or “Muldoon”, has become a buddy Wesley can turn to when he needs company or wants someone to hug. Mully joins Wesley for dips in the swimming pool, trips to the beach, and helps him interact with others. This partnership has opened up a whole new world for Wesley, improving his social skills and his self-confidence.
Six-year-old Jolena was diagnosed with autism at age three. She has since also been diagnosed with mild hypoxic cerebral palsy and oral-motor apraxia. Simply put, Jolena has great difficulty talking, moving and dealing with things.
Then along came Little Miss Muffet. Like Wesley’s dog, Muffet was selected specifically for autism training because of her stability, calmness and steady reaction to loud noises and constant motion, prevailing conditions in a household with an autistic child.
Life before Muffet included multiple daily “meltdowns” for Jolena, brought on by sensory overload when out in public or even at home. Often, such episodes would last up to three hours. Since the arrival of Muffet, Jolena’s meltdowns have decreased to an average of one per month with a recovery time of mere minutes.
These positive results for Wesley and Jolena exist because of Tender Loving Canines Assistance Dogs, Inc. – an all-volunteer nonprofit that provides custom-trained service dogs free of charge to people with limited abilities in San Diego – and its program Leash-On-Life. The latter was specifically developed to provide canine assistance for children with autism, which affects one in 110 births in the U.S.
Jolena’s mother, Becki Cook, says she must have contacted every service dog group in the U.S. and Canada before finding TLCAD and every one of them posed a problem. According to Cook, most groups require the parent to raise $7,000-$20,000 for the dog. Other groups have wait lists up to seven years and an age “standard” of between five and 12, which would have put Jolene at risk of being too old to receive a dog. “The key to autism is early intervention and most practitioners advocate programs being implemented as early as possible to get the most benefit,” says Cook.
Furthermore, she adds, the dogs “were not trained specific to my daughter’s needs but taught blanket cues, and none of the groups advocated my daughter being the handler at any point. These groups would train the dog and then essentially, after a short session, turn the dog over.”
TLCAD operates differently. At eight weeks of age a puppy is placed with a volunteer trainer in their home. The trainer teaches the dogs basic and advanced cues and socializes them through many different experiences for approximately 18 months. Through this process, the dog’s talents and strengths determine its future placement as a seizure-response, mobility, autism or specialized service dog, such as those paired with military veterans suffering Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. TLCAD then matches the dog’s assets and personality to the needs and personality of a client. Once a client is matched, customized training lasts an additional six to eight months.
“Each dog is different, just like the owner,” explains Tyson Montrucchio, long-time volunteer dog trainer and 34-year-old son of TLCAD’s founding partner, Sally Montrucchio. “Each puppy is temperament-tested to see what disability their personality would best suit. A dog that doesn’t seem to have the characteristics that are needed for someone with physical disabilities sometimes is the perfect dog for someone with mental disabilities like autism, for instance.”
Once the clients pass tests showing an ability to handle the dog safely in public, they can take possession of the dog. The dog then lives in the clients’ home but continues with custom training. Once clients can carry out all customized cues at home and in public, they must pass an extensive certification test, after which they becomes the dog’s “handler” and assume full ownership. However, TLCAD remains on board for the life of the dog for remedial work and yearly re-assessments.
Muffet, who was the first TLCAD-trained autism service dog, was paired with Jolena in 2007. One of her top tasks is keeping Jolena safe. For example, when someone knocks on the door or rings the doorbell, Muffet blocks the doorway. This allows Mom precious moments to get to her daughter. “We have locks and alarms, but she will have to learn not to open the door for strangers,” says Cook. “She has now learned to wait until Muffet is ‘released’ to open the door.”
They also tether – a term that describes how Muffet walks on a leash with Cook while Jolena holds a soft handle attached to Muffet’s vest and walks independently as opposed to being carried or pushed in a stroller. Again, this gives Cook extra time to get to Jolene in the event that she tries to run into traffic or dart across a parking lot. Since the first time she tried bolting with Muffet alongside her, Jolene has only gotten into potential danger two or three times in four months as opposed to two to three times a day.
Muffet alerts Cook if Jolena tries to undo her seatbelt, and when she hides, Muffet can “Find Jo” on cue. “She will get in a closet in the middle of the night, and I’ll have Muffet find her,” says Cook. “Muffet thinks it’s a game, and I hope we never have to use this one for real.”
And then there is behavior modification. When Jolena loses focus on a task, Muffet lays her head on the indicated point and “stays” until Jolena returns to attention. When Jolena begins to act out due to sensory overload, on cue Muffet alleviates the stress by pressing her body onto Jolena’s as a form of deep-pressure therapy. Muffet also serves as an alarm clock. “Jo does not wake up well,” says Cook. “It can become the starting point for the day, and if it goes badly, her whole day is off.”
Cook has personally tried to assist her daughter with such issues for years. Until now, Jolena has never been comfortable enough to allow it. But Muffet has been the key to eliciting more positive responses and behaviors.
Tyson Montrucchio has been working alongside his mother since the organization’s inception in 1998 and witnessed growth such as Jolena’s tenfold. “After seeing what effect the first dog my mom trained had on the disabled individual it was placed with, I was floored. Over the years, seeing dog after dog get placed with people struggling with their or their loved ones’ disabilities only solidifies my opinion of how much of a change these dogs make in these individuals’ lives and how absolutely necessary it is for us to keep doing what we do. It is absolutely jaw-dropping the amount of inspiration and motivation these dogs give their owners besides the actual physical, let alone mental, help that they give.”
And Mama Montrucchio? She’s witnessed “miracles.” Like the time when one of TLCAD’s seizure-response dogs learned on his own how to tilt his charge’s head back after a seizure to clear his air passage. Or, she recalls, the young boy with cerebral palsy who graduated from his wheelchair to a walker just so he could walk his dog. There are funny stories, too. Like the one about a boy who trained his dog to sit still so the boy’s parrot could sit on the dog’s head.
“It’s a continuum,” Sally Montrucchio says of the entire process and its resulting partnerships. “Observing each dog trained so brilliantly by a volunteer trainer and placed with a person with a disability is exciting and soul-satisfying.”
Currently, TLCAD operates with 20 active trainer volunteers, including from four to six high-school-age dog-sitters and a handful of college students who house and train dogs. Additionally, TLCAD benefits from eight board members who fill office roles as well as countless individuals who offer their time and skills to special projects. “We also encourage teens with disabilities to join us at our classes and participate in the activities,” says Sally Montrucchio. “Without volunteers we would not exist.”
And without TLCAD, Cook’s family might still be handcuffed by the unpredictable and often volatile nature of autism.
Before Jolena was born, Cook was successfully balancing her career as a horse trainer and being mother to four children. The amount of effort required to care for Jolena left little to no time for Cook to focus on anything else. Now, with Muffet by her side, Jolena can explore the family’s farm with supervision from a short distance. Cook can hire regular babysitters as opposed to healthcare workers and re-visit her career. Because of Muffet, Cook has her life back, and Jolena is living hers to the fullest.
“This is an animal that truly takes her job seriously and does it with gusto and to the best of her ability,” says Cook. “Muffet has enabled Jolena to enjoy experiences that previously she was not able, from large crowds to grocery stores and SeaWorld. Muffet has given my daughter the independence of a child without autism.”
The Good Squad highlights people – particularly youth, ages 18-35 – who have a sense of social or environmental responsibility, may be involved in volunteer work and local nonprofits, or benefit from the services provided by an organization.
Know someone who fits the bill? Send a note to rebecca.chappell(at)sdnn.com