Walking around the playground at Clover Ridge Elementary, Jack Harmon greets dozens of his friends, as they call out his name from swings, the top of the slide and ladders.
Jack, who is in the first grade, hasn’t seen those friends in a long time, since he started the school year at Bluff Creek Elementary in Chanhassen, his parents Kara and TR explained. There, the 7-year-old is part of the school’s Embark Program, which gives him specialized instruction in accordance with his autism.
Jack has made a lot of progress, since he was diagnosed with autism and severe ADHD, and remains a role model for his 5-year-old brother James. However, the Chaska family is hoping to take the next step and purchase an assistance dog through 4 Paws for Ability, located in Ohio. The Harmons have started an online fundraiser that has raised just over $5,000. They hope to raise $17,000 to cover the cost of purchasing the dog.
“Dogs for autistic children are specifically trained to intervene to distract in hopes that meltdowns are minimized, are shorter when they are unavoidable and that recovery times are quicker,” Kara said.
The dog will be specifically trained to understand Jack’s triggers and sit on him, if necessary, to help calm him down. It will also help him in stressful situations.
Jack is very excited for the dog and said he’d name it Tucker.
“He wants to buy a dog bed and get the dog toys already, but we told him he has to wait until we find out how big the dog will be. He asks us every day if we’ve raised enough money to get his dog and he vows to clean up dog poop in the yard,” Kara said.
If all goes according to plan, the Harmons hope to take a family trip with the dog to Disney World.
The newspaper asked Kara and TR more about the family’s fundraiser and how the dog would help Jack. They provided answers via email.
Q: Why does Jack need an assistance dog?
Jack’s autism, severe ADHD and anxiety make several things difficult for him: social skills, impulsivity, controlling his anger and emotions, not getting anxious in new environments, transitioning from one activity to another and melting down.
Even though we have tried many different supports for Jack (including medication, occupational therapy, social skills training, behavior modification therapy, etc.) we are concerned what the future holds for him, especially as he reaches the teen years.
We believe this service dog could help him in ways all the other things can’t and be a key component in helping him cope with how difficult even daily life is. We honestly believe that a service dog could save his life and we think more families with autistic children need to know about these dogs as a specifically trained source of comfort and intervention.
Q: What type of help would this dog give to Jack?
Along with being a nonjudgmental companion, the dog is going to spend two weeks training with Jack to practice recognizing Jack’s triggers and interrupting them, calming him down and redirecting him back to a calm place on command.
Q: What type of training do assistance dogs go through?
In addition to the basic obedience training, autism assistance dogs are trained in behavior disruption to distract and disrupt repetitive behaviors or meltdowns, tethering to prevent and protect a child from wandering, and search and rescue tracking to locate a child who has wandered.
Jack’s dog will be trained to interrupt his behavior when it starts escalating by either nudging him or kissing his face. Also, if Jack is having a full meltdown the dog will be trained to lie his entire body on Jack to provide deep pressure to calm him.
Jack’s dog will also be trained to track him if he were to wander off. And, the dog will be there to provide emotional support during transitions (whether that’s leaving a playground to go home or whether that is transitioning from the car to a doctor’s appointment, etc).
Also, the dog will be his friend who he can pet to help relieve anxiety. And because the dog is a service dog covered under the ADA he’ll be able to take the dog with him anywhere he needs, which was a key component in our decision to pursue this for him.
We believe many autistic people would benefit from a service dog and were unaware that this was even an option until just a few months ago. We’re committed to educating and hoping to spread the word so that more families touched by autism can pursue this as another care option.