Most boys and their dogs are inseparable, but 16-year-old Nate Weldon and his black Labrador retriever, Maggie, have a special bond.
Nate has autism, and Maggie is a service dog, specially trained to serve, assist and even calm children who have the developmental disorder.
"It's neat to see how she can pick up on his moods before a meltdown," Nate's mother, Jodi Weldon, said. "Now, when something's bothering him, he'll seek the dog out."
A meltdown can mean anything from yelling and throwing objects to overturning furniture or putting his fist through a wall, Mrs. Weldon said. The family lived in Penn Hills until a few weeks ago when they moved to Austin, Texas. They brought Maggie into their home shortly before the move.
The Weldons are waiting for another service dog for their 14-year-old son, Zachary, who also is autistic. If all goes well, they will receive Remi, a 5-month-old English Labrador puppy, after her training is complete and she has matured into a dependable dog.
For now, Remi lives with Rebecca Rodock in her home in Penn Township, Westmoreland County. Ms. Rodock is a volunteer puppy raiser with Perfect Fit Canines Inc., an organization that provides service dogs that are trained to help individuals who have a disorder on the autism spectrum. Ms. Rodock has 35 years of experience informally training dogs for her family and friends. She has owned several dogs and has trained one of them to be a therapy dog to visit patients.
Remi is her first service dog.
"A therapy dog needs to be a calm dog that loves people and interacts with the elderly and children," she said.
A service dog follows commands so it can help the person. It's more intense, she said.
The puppies usually stay with the person who raises them for 12 to 18 months.
Twice a month, Ms. Rodock takes Remi for training at Misty Pines Dog Park in Franklin Park, the training facility for Perfect Fit Canines. There, the dog learns basic commands such as "heel," "sit" and "stay."
To help Remi become familiar with interacting with people, the dog accompanies Ms. Rodock in a variety of social situations, including church, the mall or to visit friends and Ms. Rodock's grandchildren. Wearing her red training vest, Remi was at the Delmont Apple Festival a couple weeks ago.
"For the first five minutes, she's excited, then she calms down once she accepts the fact she is going to listen to me," Ms. Rodock said.
When she's 9 months to a year old, Remi will leave Ms. Rodock's home to attend daily training classes, or "boot camp," at Misty Pines Dog Park. There, the puppy will work with an animal behaviorist to learn more specialized skills, such as how to track and locate a child who has wandered away from a parent, said Susan Wagner, who, with her husband, Jim, owns and operates Perfect Fit Canines.
"A lot of the children are tethered to the dog that will watch the child's feet and will drop if the child begins to take off. It's kind of a tricky thing because the child has to play, too," Mrs. Wagner said.
The length of time the dog spends at boot camp depends upon the skills it must master to meet the child's needs.
During this time, the child and his family meet with the puppy and an autism specialist to ensure a smooth transition. Before moving into the child's home, the dog must pass a competency test. Perfect Fit Canines continues to offer support and training to ensure that the child and puppy develop a healthy relationship.
The cost for a family to acquire a service dog ranges from $5,000 to $18,000, Mrs. Wagner said. The amount includes veterinary care and training. Most families have to raise the money through fundraisers, such as spaghetti dinners, car washes or raffles, she added.
The Weldons are so pleased with their dog, Maggie, they have agreed to launch another Perfectly Fit Canines from their new home in Austin. Mrs. Weldon said she will start recruiting volunteer puppy raisers and veterinary services soon.
"We really need to fulfill the demand for puppy raisers," Mrs. Wagner said.
For Ms. Rodock, it was something she always wanted to do.
"I'm 65 this week. I thought at my age I just wanted to enjoy the puppy experience," she said. "I know in my mind she's not mine and I'm just raising her to help someone else."neigh_east
Laurie Bailey, freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org. First Published October 25, 2012 9:15 AM