Dog helps take edge off autism

LENOIR CITY, Tenn. — Melanie and Tim Smith had been in the drugstore only a few minutes when they realized something was missing.

Tanner, their 8-year-old severely autistic son, wasn't his usual hyperactive self. While the couple did their shopping, the Loudon Elementary School pupil remained sprawled on the floor with his toys, his new service dog at his side.

The dog's name is Tug. He's a Newfoundland-collie mix, and at 14 months old, he already weighs 80 pounds — heavy enough to act as a counterweight for Tanner, whose constant movements can be difficult to control.

The Smith family received Tug last month from Pawsibilities Unleashed, a training center in Frankfort, Ky., that places assistance dogs with children and adults who suffer from deafness, mobility problems, seizures and more.

Like most of the dogs trained by Pawsibilities Unleashed, Tug came from an animal shelter. To qualify as a service dog, he first had to pass rigorous temperament tests.

Tug and Tanner spend much of the day joined by a 2-foot length of nylon webbing. As an autism service dog, Tug will be trained to alert the family when Tanner has a seizure. Already, he knows to block Tanner from wandering out the door.

Tanner's mother said that since Tug joined the family, Tanner has had fewer outbursts.

"We can already tell that Tug is having a calming effect," Melanie said. "The other day we took Tug and Tanner to a restaurant, and I was able to carry on a conversation for 15 minutes. That might seem small to somebody else, but it's big to me."

Pawsibilities Unleashed charges $5,000 for its assistance dogs.

The fee for Tug was covered by the Maryville-based Smoky Mountain Walking Horse Association through its annual donation to The Dream Connection. The club also paid for the Smiths' motel and travel expenses during their weeklong training session with Tug in Kentucky.

The Smiths are longtime members of the walking horse association.

"Tanner's situation requires constant attention," club president Ruth Tudor said. "We're hoping a service dog gives his parents a little more security. Plus, there's the bond between a boy and his dog. Every kid needs a best friend."

Born 13 weeks premature, Tanner spent the first 2½ months of his life in intensive care. He is nonverbal, suffers from occasional seizures and is prone to banging himself on the head when he is overstimulated.

Training and homework

The Smith family — Tanner, his parents, and Tyler, Tanner's 11-year-old brother — spent a week in Frankfort learning how to complete Tug's training as a service dog.

It was an exhausting schedule. Each day the parents spent four to five hours in class, followed by homework assignments and field trips to restaurants and other public places with Tanner and Tug.

The Smiths learned Tug's basic obedience commands, and how to work with him on scent training so that he might alert the family to subtle changes in Tanner's scent brought about by illness or a seizure.

One of the trainers for Pawsibilities Unleashed is Tracy Hagan, whose 12-year-old son, Tyler, has had an autism service dog for the past nine months.

Hagan said she started out with a Labrador retriever but switched to a terrier mix because the smaller size suited her son. The service dog's name is Carmella.

"Carmella is trained to interrupt his hand flapping. She will go up to Tyler and jump on him with her front paws to interrupt that cycle," Hagan said. "Since my son has gotten his service dog, he has been off his anxiety medicines."

While Tug is getting used to living with the Smith family, they are getting used to living with Tug. Tanner has never slept alone. Right now, he's still sleeping with his parents, with Tug on the bed, too. Melanie said she hopes boy and dog eventually will be comfortable in their own room.

"You want kids to be all they can be," she said. "If this is all Tanner can be, then fine, but I want to give him every opportunity to be more."

Meeting the students

Pawsibilities Unleashed trains exclusively by positive reinforcement. Choke chains or any other form of negative reinforcement are prohibited. These days, Melanie's pockets are full of dog treats. When Tug obeys a command, she likes to let Tanner administer the reward.

Just as Tug is learning to adjust to his new family, he soon will have to adjust to another new environment when Tanner takes his service dog to school.

Melanie recently took Tanner and Tug for their first visit to Tanner's special education class at Loudon County Elementary.

Loanne Van Voorhis, Tanner's teacher, said Tug will be the first service dog she has had in her classroom in more than 30 years of teaching.

"This is going to be a learning experience for everyone involved," Van Voorhis said.