Service dog can ‘read’ disabled boy
When CoCo is wearing her vest, she’s working, and she knows it.
She won’t eat her dinner until she’s on break.
She even bypassed a snack of french fries that were invitingly lying on the floor on a recent trip to Dairy Queen with her family.
CoCo, a 95-pound St. Bernard puppy, returned to Grand Island June 2 after completing two months of training in California to be a service dog for an 8-year-old boy, Alex Anderson.
Alex has pervasive development disorder, a chromosomal disorder, slight autism, Tourette’s syndrome, fragile X syndrome, and neurofibromatosis (which causes skin pigmentations that may form into tumors).
He is also blind in his left eye and has a 25 percent hearing loss.
CoCo’s service vest is lined with patches that advise of her work.
“ADHD Service Dog.”
“Do Not Pet Autism Service Dog.”
“Tourette Syndrome Service Dog.”
And on her lower right side, simply, “Service Dog CoCo.”
“Come on CoCo Bean,” Alex lovingly calls her as he picks up her tether that is then clipped onto the back of his own vest.
Alex’s genetic makeup poses a variety of challenges — frequent outbursts, lack of focus, anxiety and aggression — but it does not own him, said his mom, Kim Anderson. Particularly with CoCo by his side.
“CoCo has a completely calming effect on him,” Kim said.
“There’s so much thanks to all who have helped,” she said this week, with tears in her eyes.
The Andersons’ church — First Presbyterian — the Grand Island community, and donors well beyond the city boundaries came together this spring to raise the $7,000 needed to train CoCo to detect oncoming seizures, to pull back when Alex tries to bolt and to refocus him out of an angry outburst.
“CoCo was born to do this job,” said Alex’s grandma, Wanda Stelk. “It seems to be her purpose.”
Stelk said during a recent outing to Wal-Mart, Alex asked for a toy. She said no. The typical tantrum of a disappointed youngster followed, but with Alex’s maladies, such tantrums can be much more pronounced and severe. CoCo immediately noticed the flare-up and went to work.
She sat down and licked her boy’s face to redirect him. As he tried to move, she stayed put, forcing him to sit and to pay attention to her, to refocus. To get back on track. To stay with grandma.
The meltdown evaporated.
Alex and CoCo go for walks around their Kennedy Drive neighborhood twice a day and then head out to stores to get practice working together. Alex’s dad, Robert, gets the duo going by taking the guide leash and getting them headed out on the sidewalk. He quickly drops the leash so the two side-by-side can get synced with one another’s rhythm.
“She reads Alex,” Kim said of CoCo.
CoCo’s trainer, David Dickey of the San Diego area, will come to Grand Island in early July to work with Alex in his own home setting. Alex trained with CoCo three times during her training sessions in California, but there’s some stuff that can only be worked out at home, Kim said. Service dogs often regress slightly when arriving home. And home is the most comfortable spot for Alex, so it’s where he exhibits some of his most challenging behaviors.
The hope is to have Dickey return again in August when school starts to help Alex and CoCo get into their third-grade school routine at Newell Elementary.
As Alex and CoCo get more and more used to their routines, Kim said, it’s possible that Alex may be able to go off some medications.
“If he could go off just one medicine, this is worth it,” she said. “If he can focus so that I can have a conversation with my oldest or one of the twins, it is worth it.” Tears streamed down her cheeks and she looked into the faces of her five older children.
The family learned about the value of service dogs on a trip to Florida, where Alex’s specialist is. Another family with an autistic child had a service dog, and they noticed how calm that child was. Kim and Robert have pledged to help trainer David Dickey in his efforts to begin a foundation to train service dogs for autistic children who can’t afford their own dog.
Kim is also adamant about sharing Alex’s story to help others understand about disabilities and to discourage discrimination against people with them, as the family recently experienced with American Airlines.
The Andersons had flights booked into and out of Grand Island to retrieve CoCo from her training in California. She saw the flights into the hometown airport as a real benefit for Alex to avoid a nearly three-hour car trip after the flight, but the family was denied by American from flying back from California into Grand Island with a service dog.
Kim was questioned about Alex’s disabilities and CoCo’s services. She was then told that neither would be allowed to fly on American, she said. The airline refunded the ticket money and the family had to rebook return flights on Delta into Omaha at an additional $1,000 cost due to the lateness of the booking.
The flight back on Delta was wonderful, Kim said. CoCo was allowed to lie at Alex’s feet. He took his shoes off and stroked the dog the entire flight.
“Alex didn’t scream or hit on the plane,” his mom said. “He was just OK.”
An upcoming trip to Florida to visit his doctor will also be on Delta, which Kim said advertises itself as the “airline for the disabled.” The doctor has also issued an informational letter that Kim carries explaining Alex’s medical need to have the dog with him on a plane.
Around Grand Island, Kim said people have been “all smiles” in seeing Alex with his dog. They’ve been to Hy-Vee, Home Depot, PetSense and the city library. Swim lessons at Island Oasis start next week. CoCo won’t get in the water, but she’ll be by the water’s edge to help reduce any anxiety Alex may have.
“She knows her job,” Kim said.
~ Courtesy of The Independent