Service dog changes girl's life, one day at a time
Morgan Ian Adams/Collingwood Enterprise-Bulletin Leah Bryan with Nox, an autism assistance service dog provided to the family through the Lions Foundation of Canada.
COLLINGWOOD — Leah Bryan happily chatters away, and her topics bounce from a recent visit to Ripley’s Aquarium in Toronto, a dentist appointment, and a cake her teacher brought to school.
Every once in awhile, her mom Kim tries to draw her back on track, helping Leah to verbalize her thoughts.
Nearby, Nox is stretched out on the Bryans’ back patio, snapping at the occasional fly. The yellow lab is wearing his red jacket — a signal to him, and others, that he’s on the job.
Nox joined the Bryan family just before Christmas thanks to the Lions Foundation of Canada; the two-year old lab is a ‘graduate’ of the foundation’s autism assistance dog guide program.
Leah was diagnosed with autism last year; she also has Down syndrome, a chromosomal abnormality affecting development.
Autism is a neurological disorder that can result in difficulties with communication and social interaction, and unusual patterns of behaviour.
The foundation covers the cost of training — approximately $25,000 — and provides ongoing support to the family for the working life of the dog. The cost is raised through donations and sponsorships, such as through the Purina Dog Walk; that’s being held on May 25 in Wasaga Beach, with registration opening at 10 a.m. at the Nancy Island Parking Lot.
This is the fifth year for the walk, which is now organized by the Nancy Island Lions Club; it was started after Lions Club member Fred Heyduk received a special skills dog from the foundation.
“It’s made such a dramatic impact on his life,” said Heyduk’s wife, Michelle, who is vice-president of the Nancy Island Lions Club.
Heyduk’s golden retriever opens doors, can pick things up, and even helps Heyduk stand up from a seated position. Last year after Heyduk was diagnosed with diabetes, the dog learned to bring him his insulin kit.
Even though Nox has only been part of the family for the last five months, Kim Bryan has already seen substantive change in Leah — especially when it comes to a change in routine, or when Bryan takes her to Guides, swimming lessons, or her music therapy sessions.
“What I didn’t expect is how easy he’s made transitions,” said Bryan. “We were going to Guides with Nox, and Leah got ready and got in the van before I did… we ended up being 10 minutes early rather than 40 minutes late.
“With the dog, we find that it’s easier for her to go somewhere, and she participates more.”
She and her husband Mark had to undergo their own training; nine days at the Lions Foundation headquarters in Oakville where they learned how to become the dog’s handlers, how to care for him, and how to give commands and provide positive reinforcement.
“The dog has to be able to respond to us, and develop a strong enough bond with Leah,” said Bryan. “We’re still working on it, but it’s coming along pretty good.
“It’s still a long process, and if he does something right, we make sure he gets the praise, and a treat.”
One area Nox has helped has been with how Leah handles situations that could result in sensory overload, such as at a school assembly. During a recent Guide meeting, the location needed to be changed; that upset Leah, who tried to bolt from the room.
However, she was tethered to Nox, and when Bryan gave the command, the dog anchored himself.
While Bryan said Leah wasn’t happy with that, she was encouraged to pet Nox, which allowed her to relax and rejoin the group within a few minutes.
Typically, said Bryan, Leah would remain in a withdrawn state — sometimes for hours — by being overwhelmed or thrown by circumstance.
Nox has also accompanied Leah on trips to Ripley’s Aquarium, and the Hospital for Sick Children — where the dog was able to relieve her anxiety as they made the ride in one of the hospital’s glass-walled elevators.
It’s also the assurance of safety — that Leah won’t bolt from a situation — that has especially been relieving to the Bryans; Kim said that last year while at the Great Northern Exhibition, before they got Nox, she turned her back to Leah while closing the door to her vehicle, and when she turned around, Leah was gone.
Fortunately, another woman was there and caught up to Leah before she got far.
“It didn’t take very long (for Leah to disappear),” said Bryan. “When I applied for the dog, it was primarily for safety reasons. First and foremost, it’s the freedom, that I can leave Leah for a moment, and not feel that have to be ‘on’ 24-7.”
Eventually, says Bryan, the bond between Leah and Nox will be strong enough that he can accompany her to school on a regular basis. He already sleeps in her room, ready to comfort Leah if she should wake up from a nightmare.
He also helps Leah in interacting with others.
“Having a dog, for her, and us, is a whole new experience,” said Bryan. “We encourage people to come up to her and ask about the dog. It helps with her communication and social skills.
“It helps Leah with transitions, and it helps her with participation, and gets her out more in the community — which is better for her,” she said. “He is changing her world one day at a time, and it’s getting better and better.”
For more information on the Purina Dog Walk, contact Heyduk at 705-429-9249, or email Fredheyduk@hotmail.com.