PINK HILL — The white dog sits quietly beside the school building, watching through deep-set, pale brown eyes as the young boy plays quietly by himself on the playground several yards away. Though he appears relaxed, the dogs eyes never leave the boy, following him as he navigates a wavering circle around the other children grouped around the brightly colored slides; as he bends to look at a toy truck through a small magnifying glass, smiling down on his discovery from somewhere inside his own, private world.
According to Kenansville Elementary Special Needs Pre-K Teacher Gina Hardy, Puzzle, a one-and-a-half year old Goldendoodle service dog, has made himself right at home at the school, where he works during the school day with his charge, Aiden Price, a three-year-old special needs student who suffers from Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD), a form of autism.
According to Hardy, Puzzle is the first service dog in the history of Duplin County Schools. The Board of Education recently passed a Service Dog Resolution specifically to allow Puzzle to accompany Aiden to Kenansville Elementary.
Hardy said Puzzle’s first day at the school was May 27, which gave him just enough time to get comfortable with his new surroundings before the end of the school year.
According to Hardy, Aiden’s autism manifests itself in poor communication skills and socialization problems, though she stressed that these issues in no way denote a lack of intelligence. “Most of his problems are verbal and receptive,” said Hardy. “But he knows his ABC’s; he can write them out. He also knows his numbers.”
Despite the difficulties associated with his condition, Hardy said Aiden is inquisitive and eager to learn. “He’s my little scientist; he loves to look at things through a magnifying glass,” explained Hardy. “He also loves textures. He’ll pick up a handful of sand and let it run through his fingers, and he loves running his hands through Puzzle’s hair.”
A primary concern for the school staff has been Aiden’s inability to recognize potentially hazardous situations. “He sees no danger in anything, and for someone who likes to climb as much as he does, that can be a real problem,” said Hardy.
Aiden’s parents, Sara and Adam Price, began researching service dogs shortly after Aiden was diagnosed with PDD last October. While web surfing, they came across the site for Highland Training Service, a dog training facility in Harmony, N.C. that specializes in dogs disciplined to work with special needs children. Though initially discouraged by the costs of training and purchasing a dog, which can run in excess of $10,000, the Prices turned to their church and community for assistance, eventually raising the required money plus additional funds that they say will be used to help other families in need of similar assistance. “We really thought the financing was going to be a problem,” commented Sara, “but the community was very supportive. We couldn’t have done this without them.”
In addition to Aiden, the Prices also have a one-year-old son, Colton, a five-year-old daughter, Danielle, and will soon be the parents of a new baby girl.
After the administrators at the Highland Training Service approved Aiden for their service dog program, the Prices went through a five-day training period, learning proper commands, physical requirements, and other essential details to ensure a successful working relationship between dog and family. Two trainers from the facility also came when the dog was delivered to the Price’s home, staying several days to help introduce them to their new family member.
The Prices were initially given a Great Dane to work with, an arrangement that proved to be less than ideal. “It just wasn’t working out,” said Adam, “Luckily, they were great about letting us get another dog that was calmer and better suited to Aiden.”
Sara said Aiden and Puzzle took a few days to warm up to each other, but have since become inseparable. “At first, Aiden didn’t know what to think, but they’ve really bonded since then. It took Puzzle a few days to relax also, but now he lets Aiden sit on his back and he sleeps with him in his room.”
Puzzle’s main task involves helping Aiden negotiate environments outside of the Price’s home, where the three-year-old has a tendency to become agitated and wander away from his parents and teachers. Puzzle has been outfitted with a special harness that allows him to be tethered to Aiden, enabling the dog to guide him and preventing Aiden from moving quickly away from adults.
“He goes everywhere with us. We mainly use the harness when we go out in public somewhere,” said Sara.
“Aiden’s very quiet and sometimes he’ll try to slip off,” explained Hardy. “When you’re trying to keep a whole class full of children in check, it makes a big difference to know that Puzzle is there if we need him.”
Hardy said she often uses the tether when the children go outside to play after lunch, or when she needs to work with Aiden one-on-one.
“If he starts to wander off, we’ll use the tether. You can give Puzzle a ‘down’ command, and he’ll automatically drop and not move,” said Hardy.
Puzzle also underwent search and rescue lessons while at Highland Training Service and is trained to track Aiden should he become lost, a skill Adam said the family could have used several days prior to Puzzle’s arrival, when Aiden wandered away from a babysitter, who was unable to locate him. Aiden was eventually found in a neighbor’s yard, unharmed.
One issue Hardy hasn’t had to deal with is figuring out Puzzle’s bathroom habits. “I usually take him for a walk when we’re outside, but he hasn’t used the bathroom for me yet. The trainers said he might not go while he’s here, because he considers himself to be working.”
According to Hardy, the dog’s presence has had a calming effect on Aiden. “When they come back in from playing the lights are off for naptime and sometimes Aiden doesn’t like to go to sleep. Puzzle will get on the cot beside Aiden and sleep with him, and it’s really helped.”
Hardy said the school held an assembly on the day Puzzle arrived to educate the student body on the dog’s role at the school. Trainers from the Highland facility instructed the students to avoid making sudden, loud noises or running quickly towards Puzzle. “The students have been awesome,” said Hardy. “We told them he’s Aiden’s buddy and that they could pet him if they wanted to. It’s been a really neat and positive thing.”
For Puzzle’s part, Hardy said he is still getting used to his new environment. “It’s a lot of new faces and a lot of new smells. It’s been a real change for him as well. It took him about a week to really get relaxed.”
Hardy said Puzzle will remain with Aiden throughout his next two years at the school.
While the Prices said they haven’t encountered any negative feedback from taking Puzzle into local business establishments, Hardy said one of the trainers who accompanied him to the school told her he was initially denied a room at a local hotel that had a strict no-pets policy. “Its something the public needs to know; they need to be educed on this,” remarked Hardy. “The law says these animals can go anywhere the general public is allowed to go.”
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), privately owned businesses that serve the public, such as restaurants, hotels, retail stores, taxicabs, theaters, and sports facilities, are prohibited from discriminating against individuals with disabilities. The ADA requires these businesses to allow people with disabilities to bring their service animals onto their premises in whatever areas customers are generally allowed.
The ADA defines a service animal as any guide dog, signal dog, or other animal individually trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability.
Aiden’s parents said he has shown marked improvement since Puzzle’s arrival. “He’s blossomed, he really has,” said Adam, while Sara added, “It’s amazing how much his speech has improved in the last few weeks. Who would have thought a dog could help a child talk?”
Hardy concurred with the Prices assessment. “It’s amazing how much better he’s done since Puzzle’s been here. He’s actually had a calming effect on the whole class. Puzzle has been a real asset.”
At home, the Prices said Puzzle is officially off duty unless a special occasion arises. “We try to give him time to relax and have a little bit of down time,” explained Sara, glancing over at Puzzle as he stretches out on his bed in the Price’s living room. “He’s a lazy dog if he’s not working.”
Adam said Puzzle has already grown protective of the family. “He paces the house to check on things,” he stated. “His biggest problem is he doesn’t like new people coming into the home.”
When not at school, the Prices said Aiden likes to watch his favorite TV program, The Wiggles, and also enjoys dancing and swimming. “Our computer has a touchscreen monitor and he loves to play with that,” said Adam. “He likes anything tactile; things he can touch.”
As for the immediate future, The Prices said they are cautious, but hopeful.
“He’ll start speech therapy soon,” said Sara. “We would love to see him mainstreamed, to be able to do things on his own. He may be delayed, but he shouldn’t be held back. We’d also like to see him handle Puzzle on his own, with no help.”
The Prices said they have worked to keep Aiden as engaged with the world as possible, and recommended that other parents facing similar situations use their own judgment when assessing their children’s mental and behavioral health. “Try to catch it early; follow your instincts,” insisted Adam. “If you think there may be something wrong with your child, have him checked out. You can’t always listen to doctors who tell you to wait.”
Despite the challenges involved in raising a child with autism, Sara said the rewards are far greater. “It’s been so amazing watching him grow. You can’t give up on them, because it’s a lot to handle, it really is, but it can always be worse.”