November 8, 2012 | Volume 42, Number 45

Service dog a link to others for autistic boy

Gus, a one-year-old black Labrador retriever, may be the nicest dog in town.

He’s trained to be.

The service dog was introduced to teachers and dozens of elementary students during an assembly Tuesday at Haines School, where he’s expected to become a daily fixture as a companion for Alex Moore, a first-grader with autism.

Service dogs are typically trained to guide people or perform specific tasks, but Gus’ job is to meet people and to serve as a link between Moore, who is non-verbal, and others at the school, said Tim Houweling, a dog trainer who spoke to students.

“His training involved a lot of socialization, so he can be anywhere and do anything and it’s no big deal… Our goal is to have him able to fall asleep in any environment,” Houweling said.

Victoria Moore, Alex’s mom, said Tuesday that besides connecting Alex with classmates and improving his communication skills, she hopes Gus can help her son learn motor skills and empathy, and potentially reduce his outbursts.

“It will really help (Alex) with that calming effect. His job is always to be with Alex and be his anchor when he’s upset,” Moore said. “Our hope is for Alex to get Gus’ commands down in a playful way.”

Houweling works for Good Dog, an Oceanside, Calif., firm that trains service animals. Part of Gus’ training was attending events in San Diego in crowds of thousand of people, including air shows where military jets flew close overhead. “Gus said ‘hi’ to two or three thousand people in a day, at events inundated with new noises and new things going on,” Houweling said.

Specifically for life in Alaska, Gus has been trained to ride on boats and small planes and not to chase wildlife. “He’s great with fireworks, gunfire and planes,” Hoeweling said.

Victoria Moore said the idea for a service dog was inspired by a connection her son made with a friend’s dog more than a year ago. Husband Josh Moore investigated options for service dogs on the Internet. After a screening, Gus was chosen a year ago, with Alex’s needs in mind. His training started at age seven weeks.

For the next few weeks, Moore will be training the dog – he already knows about a dozen commands – to abide by her authority. She also wants to train her son to feed Gus and take him for walks. “We want Alex to know it’s his dog and his responsibility.”

Gus also may be able to notify others when Alex, who is a diabetic, is suffering from low blood sugar, she said.

Gus will spend a few hours a day in the school this year, with the goal of becoming a full-time companion next year, she said.

Moore said the socialization effect was evident Tuesday during lunch at the school playground, when students approached her son and asked if they could pet his dog. “It’s already working,” she said.

Students, who each got to pet Gus at the Tuesday assembly, seemed enthused to have a dog join them at school.

Third-grader Avery Williamson said she was very excited to have a dog in the school. She has a Husky mutt named Crockett at home.

“(Gus) is really sweet and he doesn’t hurt anybody. He just wants to be played with. I think he’ll really help Alex, and Alex will grow to love him very much,” Williamson said.

Students at the assembly were taught to always first ask Alex if they can pet Gus, and to not feed him. They were told to treat the dog with respect, just as if he were an aide or teacher at the school.