Service Dog for Karis
Organized by: Marcie Monaco
Karis Jane is a darling little girl with autism. Like many little girls, she loves tickles, princesses, and fairies. Unlike many “typical” little girls she has profound difficulties communicating and adjusting to changes in her routines. She also has a general lack of safety awareness.
No one knows why almost half of autistic children have “escape artist” tendencies. They will bolt from their parents in malls and parking lots. They will sneak out of their homes and schools and run away. Because of these behaviors, autistic children have TWICE the mortality rate of their neurotypical peers, and most of these deaths are caused by drowning or traffic incidents.
Karis has gotten faster and sneakier as she’s gotten older, and we have done everything we can to keep her safe, such as researching the best behavioral therapy techniques to minimize dangerous behaviors and putting special locks and alarms on our doors. Even so, simply taking her to the store or park is a huge undertaking. It’s a stressful and terrifying way to live.
Recently, we heard about an organization called Autism Anchoring Dogs. AAD was founded by a woman named Kirsten Decker. Ten years ago, her 8-year-old son with autism bolted from the park where he was playing with his family and was NEVER found.
Kirsten is passionate about training giant breeds of dogs (St. Bernards, Leonbergers, and Newfoundlands) to act as service dogs to children with autism in order to reduce or eliminate these dangerous tendencies all together. These particular breeds are chosen because of their patient and protective natures, loyalty, and size: a 150 lb. animal is unlikely to be overpowered by a strong-willed child.
The dog would be tethered to Karis every time we leave the house, whether it be for short trips down the block or while she is at school. If Karis tries to run, the dog would patiently sit down until Karis relents. If Karis is untethered for any reason (e.g. playing at the park), the dog would be another set of eyes and ears, and would be trained to intercept her if she bolts. If, for some reason, she is ever able to escape (e.g. at night while the household is asleep), her furry companion would become a search-and-rescue dog. He would also be trained to offer her comfort during tantrums and meltdowns, which are common in children with autism spectrum disorder.
Once we heard about AAD and spoke with families who have adopted service dogs, we knew we needed to pursue this for Karis’ sake. We put in an application, and heard back a few weeks later that our application had been accepted. It does take about 18 months to properly train a service dog, who will live with a foster family during this time. The one catch is the price tag. If we had a year or two to prepare we might be able to make room in our budget for the $15,000+ cost, but a hefty deposit is due immediately. It is currently "puppy season," when AAD brings in a new group of puppies for training, and waiting any longer will mean that we could miss out on getting a dog assigned to us this year and then it will be 2 1/2 years before we will be able to bring home this new family member.
You can find out more about Autism Anchoring Dogs by visiting their website: autismanchoringdogs.org.