Wednesday, November 3, 2010

NJ autistic kids find lives enriched by dog companions

The intro to a story in The Star-Ledger in N.J.:

The Rhodesian Ridgeback stands patiently as Jack Seidler (pictured), 9, whose mother says "never interacts with anybody," first pats, then hugs, then drapes himself across the dog’s broad back. The mother catches her breath in surprise. The dog’s trainer smiles.

Wyatt has worked his magic again.

Dogs have been helping the disabled for centuries, but only recently has there been a concerted movement to provide dogs as therapy for autistic children. A decade ago, there were few organizations offering trained companion or service dogs to autistic people. Now there are dozens.

With the popularity spike in autism service dogs, however, comes questions not only about the cost and the training of the dogs and their handlers, but the appropriateness of dog companions in every case for children with a spectrum disorder that can have a wide range of behaviors.

Enter Wyatt, a 100-pound, 2-year-old dog with a special talent.

Wyatt is not a companion dog, says his owner, Janice Wolfe of Wyckoff. He is a test dog.

"Almost from the moment he was born, Wyatt seemed to have a unique affinity for disabled children, particularly those with autism," said Wolfe, who said she has trained thousands of dogs in the past 30 years. "Some dogs are good with active kids; others with withdrawn kids.

"Wyatt adapts to any situation and remains calm, even when he has been pushed, prodded, even bitten so hard it drew blood and left a scar. Wyatt works magic."

Wyatt’s abilities were recently recognized with a national award from the American Kennel Club and have been acknowledged by no less than the queen of over-achieving autistic people, Temple Grandin.

"I believe in the work Janice and Wyatt are doing," said Grandin, the famous animal scientist who overcame her autism to become one of Time magazine’s most influential people in 2010. "Dogs are perfect for some autistic kids, but not all. Some may have a serious sensory problem with the noise, the drooling or the smell.

"I know parents look for a single magic bullet they hope will be the breakthrough for their child, but first you have to trust that the assessment team, like Janice and Wyatt, has the best interests of the child at heart."

The AKC 2010 Award for Canine Excellence cited Wyatt "for his remarkable patience" in "countless remarkable encounters" with developmentally disabled children.

On a recent fall day, Wyatt had two meetings. The first was with Katherine Zdrojowy, a fourth-grader with Asperger’s syndrome who traveled with her mother from Florida to Wyckoff. The second was with Jack and his family in Bergenfield.

The 9-year-old traveled from Florida to meet Wolfe in her Wyckoff home to help figure out what temperament of dog would work best as a service dog.
The meetings — and Wyatt’s responses — revealed the variety of factors Wolfe must consider before placing a dog with a disabled child.

A cancer survivor who decided that her recovery was a "sign that should I use my talents to help others," Wolfe incorporated Merlin’s Kids two years ago. The name comes from a beloved horse that died.

The not-for-profit organization relies entirely on donations and the money Wolfe makes from speaking engagements, breeding, book sales and private training she does with clients throughout the country, some of whom are celebrities. It is, she said, "a constant struggle. I rescued, trained and placed 61 dogs last year and 27 this year, but I have 70 children on a waiting list. I’d like to do more, but I don’t have the time or the money."