Pet Tales: Dogs help autistic children




Three Labrador retrievers tumbled and wrestled as they waited for their training session to begin. Brie, who is yellow, is 7 months old. Remi, also yellow, is 9 months old and Oliver, who is black, is 1 year old. They stopped their play, on command, and greeted strangers with bright eyes and wagging tails.

Brie, Remi and Oliver are special puppies, and so are the people who are raising and training them to serve as assistance dogs for children and adults who have autism. They are three of the nine puppies in training at Perfect Fit Canines, a local 501(c)3 nonprofit founded three years ago by Jim and Susan Wagner of Wilkinsburg. Five fully trained dogs have been placed with children.

All but one of the dogs and puppies are Labrador retrievers, a breed chosen by the Wagners because they are smart, strong, highly trainable and eager to please.

What can a dog do for a child with autism?

"The dog and child form a bond that is absolutely amazing," said Mr. Wagner, a therapist, behaviorist and counselor who has worked with people with autism for nearly 20 years.

Some children with autism have behavioral outbursts -- some parents describe them as "meltdowns" -- that can be difficult to contain. Dogs are a calming influence though "we really don't know how or why it happens," Mr. Wagner said. "One of our dogs knows when a meltdown is coming. He licks his child," and the outburst is averted. One child teamed with a Perfect Fit Canine has not had any meltdowns in a year, she said.

Another dog was placed with a child who had a habit of wandering away. Sometimes he was lost for hours. His service dog is tethered to his wrist, and the dog blocks him if he tries to wander off. If parents call the service dog, it leads the child back to them.

Service dog programs start with the volunteers who raise puppies, and love them as if they were their own. They get puppies at 8-10 weeks old and give them back at 12-18 months old. One of their jobs is to get them out in public to socialize them.

"Remi especially loves to go to church," said Becky Rodock of Penn. "The people there love her, and she goes right up to the altar with me."

Nancy Gormley of Monroeville is raising her first service dog puppy, but has fostered dogs and puppies for local shelters so she knows how to love puppies and then give them up.

Oliver is being raised by the Wagners.

Most puppy raisers have dogs of their own. Ms. Gormley is raising Brie with Shortstop, her 13-year-old shepherd/beagle/greyhound mix who is amazingly tolerant of the playfully boisterous young dog.

Perfect Fit Canines partners with Jeff Woods, who owns and operates the Misty Pines training center and dog park. Puppies and their raisers go to classes there at least twice a month. Mr. Woods and his staff complete the training for adult dogs, working with the Wagners to meet the needs and lifestyle of the child or adult.

The Wagners do not make a living from Perfect Fit Canines, although they would love to be able to make it a full-time job. Mr. Wagner teaches communications and forensic psychology at evening classes for adults, and Mrs. Wagner works at a law firm.

It can cost as much as $18,000 to train one dog, and recipients need to do fundraising to cover the cost. Perfect Fit has fundraisers, accepts donations and hopes to attract corporate sponsors.

Nine children and adults are scheduled to receive puppies currently in training. Three people on the waiting list will get off the list when more puppy raisers step forward. Perfect Fit Canines pays veterinary bills and training costs. Puppy raisers pay for dog food and treats, and those costs are tax deductible.

Go to www.perfectfitcanines.org for information.

The next fundraiser is April 6 at Union Project, 801 N. Negley Ave., Highland Park (15206). Tickets are $75 for a 6:30 p.m. wine tasting and a 7:30 p.m. concert or $40 for just the concert, featuring Matt Otis and The Sound. The wine is from Christian Klay Winery, and the food from Dorian's Catering. The service dogs will attend.

Tickets are available on the website, the Facebook page or by calling 412-559-8564 or 412-445-9768.

Baby shower

Spring is the season for the birth of wildlife, and some will need help at the Animal Rescue League Wildlife Center in Verona. The 13th annual Baby Shower Fundraiser from noon to 4 p.m. next Saturday will collect donated supplies at eight locations. Donors can meet animals from the wildlife center.

Some supplies are not in the average pantry, including freeze-dried meal worms and blood worms, kitten formula, whole dried corn, and reptile bedding. More common food items include canned carrots, peaches, pears, peas and applesauce as well as walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds, chestnuts, pecans and acorns. Food made for human babies can feed young wildlife, including jars of baby food broccoli, green beans, squash and peas.

Also needed are kitty litter, paper towels, toilet paper, towels, crocheted or knitted blankets, 30- and 55-gallon garbage bags, bleach, liquid laundry detergent and original Dawn liquid dish soap. Also, gift cards from grocery stores, Home Depot, pet stores, Target and Walmart.

Here's where donors can drop off supplies: Bakery Square Anthropologie, the Streets of Cranberry shops, The Galleria of Mt. Lebanon near Panera, Allegheny Medical & Wellness at 1 Racquet Lane in Monroeville, Journeys of Life at 810 Bellefonte St. in Shadyside, Pittsburgh Public Market in the Strip, and Waterfront mall across from Petco at the Waterworks.

Sgt. Stubby, war hero

Inspired by the ballroom of Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall in Oakland, Post-Gazette publisher John R. Block told the story of Sgt. Stubby, a pit bull who took part in 17 battles with a U.S. Army unit on the Western Front during World War I. At last Saturday's fifth annual Lovers Not Fighters Gala, Mr. Block accepted the first Hero Award given by Hello Bully for the Toledo Blade's efforts to defeat breed-specific legislation in Ohio. To see a video of the speech, go to post-gazette.com.

Pet Tales appears weekly in the Saturday Home & Garden section. Linda Wilson Fuoco: lfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3064. First Published February 23, 2013 5:00 AM




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