Just by watching an interview of nine-year-old Jack Peña, it is visible that his Autism Assistance Dog Stitch calms him. As he pets his Golden Retriever, Jack says, “Stitch is a really good friend and assistance dog. I sleep better now because Stitch cuddles with me.” Jack and Stitch live in Andover, Minn. with family members John, Jen, seven-year-old sister Isabella “Bella” along with Lucy the puppy and Cuddles the hamster. John says that Stitch has improved not only the life of Jack, but also to the whole family as he “brings a calmness to the household”.
As doting parents, John and Jen say he cried a lot as a baby, had frequent ear infections, and they noticed he was not meeting typical milestones (sitting up, crawling, etc.). As there was family history of autism and with a familiarity of the medical identifiers, they were not surprised when Jack was diagnosed at two and a half years of age with Autism Spectrum Disorder. They put most of the resources they had into Jack’s intensive therapies, including Jen’s application for an assistance dog at Can Do Canines. Life went on for the Peña family for three years…then they received the call about Stitch.
As the years had passed, Jen forgot that she applied to Can Do Canines. When Can Do Canines called to inquire if the family still wanted an assistance dog for Jack, they eagerly accepted knowing it would complement his other therapies.
“Stitch is a blessing and joy to the family.”
John lists many ways that having an Autism Assistance Dog has enhanced Jack’s life – increasing tolerance in public places, improving social situations, providing safety in case Jack bolts and creating more awareness of his surroundings. A typical day reveals collaboration between Jack and Bella as they each walk, feed and play with their dogs together. Jack also exhibits responsibility as he brushes Stitches teeth and combs his fur. It is a conversation starter when others ask about Stitch and Jack loves to talk about him and readily tells others about his autism and his assistance dog. Getting out has become a positive experience for the family and John notes that the family dynamics have even improved. Jack is able to attend his little sisters sporting functions now because Stitch provides a positive distraction when he becomes bored. To put it bluntly, Stitch has helped Jack “become confident in his autism”.
With tears in their eyes, both Jen and John say they are blessed and express sincere gratitude to the puppy raisers, prisoners, Can Do Canines staff and their supporters that made it possible for Jack and their family to have Stitch in their lives. John adds that getting an Autism Assist Dog at no cost had a “bigger impact than just on the kid – our whole family benefits!”
Thank you to all those who made this partnership possible:
Puppy Raiser – Jim and Rosalind Elmquist
Special Thanks –Linda Wedul; The Inmate Handlers at The Minnesota Correctional Facility-Faribault
Dog Donor – Jenne Black