Kai and his best friend

Autism service dogs help kids connect but not funded

Kai used to spit on people who got too close, and make a growling sound.

He’s got cute black curly hair that women would just love to go up and ruffle. They’d get a rude shock.

He’s sensitive to bright light, loud sounds and strong smells. A ride in the car used to cause him sensory overload, and he would throw up.

When he got stressed, which was often, the little boy would bite and hit himself.

Worse, he would bolt. His mom couldn’t have a shower, go to the washroom, or have a nap, without someone to watch him.

Joanne Hall was at her wit’s end.

“I lived in a place of fear and anxiety and lack of sleep.”

He was also not talking at the age of five.

When Kai was diagnosed with autism, the pediatrician said he would benefit by having a service dog.

“I’d never even heard of it,” Joanne said.

Autism service dogs are recognized for the increased safety they provide – to guide children and find them if they stray. The Autism Canada Foundation also acknowledges that the dogs have shown an ability to passively teach a child responsibility, lower their aggression, and comfort them whey they are upset.

Joanne had no idea what a change such a dog would provide.

Sitting in Memorial Peace Park with his German Shepherd Cora, there’s few traces left of the stormy personality Kai had at five. He wants to show everyone how Cora can find him. The dog is turned to face the opposite direction, as Kai trundles off behind a big flower bed.

Joanne tells Cora to find Kai, and the shepherd is off, nose to the grass, on his trail. Ten seconds later, she’s bounding up to him, and he’s laughing.

He likes telling people about his dog.

“She’s been in the family a long time,” he explains.

“It’s incredible the changes in him,” says his mom.

“I have no comprehension of why. I know they way he was before we got her, and the way he is after.”

She couldn’t get him to go into the bank with her. He would scream and cry. Now he takes Cora by the handle of her harness and walks right in.

“She makes me brave,” he explained to his mom once.

Hall used to put weights on her son – heavy bean-bag stuffed animals that he would take to school, and have laid across him at night, to keep him from taking off.

The night they got Cora, the dog laid across Kai’s legs, as she has been trained to do, and Joanne knew things had just changed.

He used to avoid sensory experiences, but he runs his fingers through Cora’s long fur and nuzzles her.

“He’s becoming loving an affectionate,” said Hall. “Cora hasn’t spoken with him about it, but she has done something.”

The little boy who wouldn’t go into the bank now goes to the PNE, visits the Vancouver Aquarium and watched an Adam’s Family play with cannons going off.

He doesn’t hurt himself anymore.

“If I could give him anything in life, it would be that dog,” said Hall. “I can’t imagine life without her.”

There are service dogs that visit seniors homes, for victims of post traumatic stress disorder, people with mobility problems and seeing eye dogs for the blind. But service dogs for children with autism spectrum disorders are a comparatively young idea.

Cora was the first trained by a local non-profit called Assistance and Service Dogs B.C. (ASDBC). The trainer is Andy Krzus, who formerly trained police and search and rescue dogs, as well as offering obedience training to members of the public.

Beginning with an intelligent dog with a baseline of obedience training, he then teaches them, several hours per day over six months, in the autism speciality. They can be taught, for example, to nudge a child if they’re hitting themselves.

Andy also spends about nine hours per day with the family for a week, to customize the dog’s training to their situation.

His wife Marie said there is a lot of interest in the dogs, but so far there is no government funding. The intensive training leads to a $22,000 price tag for the dogs, which is a barrier for some people. If the family is willing to help fundraise, ASDBC will help them organize events.

“Communities rally around children.”

She believes that Kai has enjoyed a tremendous benefit from having Cora, because he loves the dog.

“I would say the bond is exceptional.”

Marie knows of no public funding or medical coverage for the autism service dogs on the horizon.

“That would be wonderful someday, but it’s a relatively new thing,” she said.

Joanne would like to see every autistic child try a service dog.

“It has changed Kai’s trajectory,” she said. “It has changed his world. He’s able to go out and see things he would never have been able to see.

“I have great hope for him now, that I didn’t have before.”