Sunday, May 25, 2008

A Boy, A Dog, And A New Life

By Maja Beckstrom

It doesn't look like much. It's just a boy and his dog waiting at a street corner. But for the Golden family, it's a momentous occasion. Nine-year-old Finn Golden whines a bit, rocks on his toes and tugs at a harness strapped to his German shepherd. The big dog stands immoveable and calm. They wait for a car. Then they cross the street. "That ordinarily would have been a huge freakout," explains mom Christine Golden, who walks down the sidewalk on the other side of the dog with the leash held loosely in her hand. "Before, we probably would have had to just turn around and go home." Two months ago, the Goldens received a service dog named Traeh, trained to work with severely autistic children. Before Traeh arrived, the Goldens rarely ventured out for a walk around their St. Paul neighborhood. Finn would throw a tantrum if they paused at an intersection or changed course. They also feared for their son's life. Like many autistic children, Finn bolts with no regard for safety. Last summer, he wrenched his arm free from a personal-care attendant and darted in front of traffic. Now, when Finn goes out, he holds Traeh's harness and wears a belt with a tether attached to the dog. If Finn tries to run, the 88-pound dog sits and stays, no matter how hard the 75-pound boy pulls. "It sounds like a small thing," Christine Golden says. "But it means everything to us. It's the difference between safety and a terrible accident." Service dogs are no longer just guide dogs for the blind. They can turn on lights, retrieve clothes or bark at the sound of a doorbell. They can help someone roll over in bed or alert a diabetic to a drop in blood sugar level and a possible impending seizure. Within the past 10 years, many service dog groups have broadened their focus to work with autistic children, responding to a surge in the number diagnosed with the developmental disorder. Hearing and Service Dogs of Minnesota recently started an autism program modeled on
a similar one in Canada. The first three dogs, including Traeh, graduated this month.
The dogs' primary job is to keep a child safe. But the animals also have a calming effect and can help break through the social isolation that often accompanies autism. "We're seeing less anxiety in some children," says Julianne Larsen, coordinator of the autism program for Hearing and Service Dogs. "We've even found that just having the dogs in the bedroom can increase the child's sleep."

Christine and Keith Golden have worried about their son ever since he was born prematurely. He takes medications to control life-threatening seizures. He doesn't speak, other than to say hi. At home, he often paces the floor on tiptoe, rattling a set of orange plastic measuring spoons, a type of repetitive behavior common among autistic kids. He likes opera and he likes watching "Sesame Street." The flat-screen television is mounted high above the fireplace so he doesn't break it. His parents have gotten rid of all their knickknacks and downstairs furniture, other than a sofa and two heavy chairs, because Finn throws things. After Finn broke several windows, they covered all the glass in the house with the same type of safety film that protects embassy windows from bombs. "It's not like he does these things out of anger or to make you mad — it's just what he does," says his mother. Managing Finn has taken its toll. Christine has a law degree but stays home full time. She and her husband, Keith, a St. Paul firefighter, have spent only one weekend away in the past nine years. They have a daughter, Brigid, 6, who is not autistic, and they rarely go anywhere as a family. "We just found ourselves doing less and less," Christine says. "Do I want to go to the park? Is it worth the screaming match that's going to happen? Stores were a nightmare. You'd find yourself physically restraining Finn the whole time. It became really, really hard to take him anywhere and experience everyday life."
Last year, the Goldens read on a Web site about dogs trained to work with autistic children. Maybe this could help, they thought. They located several out-of-state nonprofit organizations that place dogs, but most of them charged up to $15,000 for the cost of training. Hearing and Service Dogs of Minnesota's new program caught their attention because it is local and doesn't charge clients. While Hearing and Service Dogs of Minnesota was the subject of critical Pioneer Press stories in 2006 after the agency took away the service dog of a White Bear Lake resident because the dog was overweight, the program helping autistic children was not implicated.
The Goldens were among the first to apply, and they matched quickly because Traeh was in the pipeline. Now 10 months into the program, Hearing and Service Dogs has received more than 30 applications, and the wait for a dog is two years or more, the program's Larsen says. Priority is given to families with children ages 3 to 8 who have more severe autism and who are prone to running. The families also have to be able to care for a dog and have realistic expectations for what a dog can offer. "Some families want a miracle," Larsen says. "A dog can do a lot, but they can't change everything."

Traeh, whose name is "heart" spelled backwards, was raised and trained by two foster families before being placed with the Goldens on March 19, a day after the dog's third birthday. During the first couple of months, Larsen visited often to help the Goldens and Traeh learn to work together. Finn learned to hold the harness on a lot of practice walks around the neighborhood.
On a recent rainy Friday afternoon, Keith and Christine Golden picked up Finn at his classroom at Bridgeview, a St. Paul public school for special-education students. Trips to and from school used to be a miserable struggle that involved parking as close as possible to the entrance and hoping Finn didn't melt down. Now, with Traeh to help, pickups and drop-offs have become a highlight of the day. "Hi, buddy," Keith says, as he helps Finn into his backpack. "Ready to go home?" Christine holds the leash and walks Traeh toward Finn. "Get your dog," Christine prompts, and Finn reaches for the handle. Traeh keeps a steady pace through the crowded hallway to the front door, and Finn is gently tugged in the dog's wake with a soft lurching motion that he seems to enjoy. Kids look over. A few call the dog by name. "Hi, doggie!" says a boy in a wheelchair, reaching out to brush Traeh's coat. Finn smiles. A week earlier on the way out, Finn started waving and grinning like a politician and saying "Hi" over and over. "He was proud of himself," Christine says. "That he was even aware that he was the center of attention is really remarkable."

Safety is the most dramatic benefit of having a service dog, but there are other benefits, too. Traeh seems to make Finn feel more secure and calm. For the first time, Finn doesn't look at his feet when he walks. He looks around and seems to take in his surroundings. "That makes absolute sense to me," says Sue Pederson, a psychologist at the nonprofit organization Fraser. She has worked for 15 years with children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders, and while she has not worked with service dogs, she says a dog could act as a "big sensory tool" for a child with autism. "The pressure and tug of an animal and even the texture of its fur could really be calming for a child with autism," she says. Other organizations also train the service dogs to gently nudge or nuzzle a child to interrupt repetitive behaviors that can limit an autistic child's ability to interact. "Dogs can be trained to interrupt self-stimulating behavior, or bark if a child is wandering from property," said Patty Dobbs Gross, executive director of the North Star Foundation in Connecticut, one of the first agencies to start placing autism dogs. "To me, one of the main benefits is having a partner that offers the child unconditional love and an opportunity for communication where words are not required." The Goldens hope and expect to see that bond grow between their son and Traeh. They have already seen changes that amaze them. At bedtime, Finn used to flip his room light on and off, empty all his drawers or spend an hour pacing. During the first week Traeh was in the house, Keith and Christine were in their bedroom reading. The Goldens have a webcam in Finn's bedroom to monitor his seizures, and Keith suddenly pointed to the monitor screen and said, "Look." Traeh sleeps on a rug next to Finn's bed. Finn had stuck his foot out the side of the bed and was rubbing Traeh's fur. Then he dangled a hand over the edge of the bed and gently played with Traeh's velvety ear. Now, Finn rarely gets out of bed at night. Other families with autism dogs have reported similar improvements in sleep, as well as speech and greater social interaction as people approach and ask questions about the dog.

The Goldens hope Traeh broadens Finn's world — and theirs. The whole family ate breakfast together in a restaurant for the first time a couple of weeks ago, something they would never have tried before. Christine looks forward to being able to run an errand. Brigid wants to go to the Mall of America. They went there once last year to shop for new school shoes, but Finn had a meltdown and they had to leave before they got to the store. With Traeh along as an anchor, they hope Finn can sit quietly for the few minutes it would take Brigid to try on shoes. "For the last nine years, our world has been getting smaller and smaller and smaller," Keith says. "Now for the first time, we can imagine it getting bigger."

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