Something Special Indeed: Sam and Reno
For those who don’t know him, Sam looks like a typical five-year-old. He smiles easily, loves to play and he is full of energy. Normal characteristics for a school aged child, but impressions can be misleading. While Sam looks like many of the other five-year-olds in Minnesota, Sam is a child with autism.
Sam is not alone and neither are his parents, Darren and Jennifer. According to the Autism Society of America, 1 out of every 166 children born in the U.S. is diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder, making autism more prevalent among families today.
As a way to help these families, Can Do Canines began exploring the idea of training Assistance Dogs, specifically for children with autism. This fall the Schuler family was paired with Reno, a Bouvier des Flanders, and the first Autism Assist Dog placement began.
Life Before Reno
Like any parents Jennifer and Darren were happy to see Sam growing bigger and stronger. But his physical development also prompted questions about Sam’s safety. According to Jennifer, “Whenever we would take Sam to a public place whether it was the grocery store or the mall, we would have to hold onto Sam, otherwise he would bolt and run off.” They knew they couldn’t hold onto Sam twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. They needed help and looked into possible solutions for the sake of Sam’s safety.
Darren and Jennifer had heard stories about Assistance Dogs paired with children with autism. Jennifer attended a conference that focused on this topic. Unfortunately, the group presenting was in Canada. Jennifer began researching other organizations that trained this type of Assistance Dog.
She found Can Do Canines and discovered they were beginning to implement their new Autism Assist Dog program. The family applied and after going through the application process, was accepted as the first clients in the program.
Getting Reno Ready
Reno began his training like most Assistance Dogs at the organization learning obedience and gaining socialization. Once those skills were obtained, Reno’s training focused on serving as an anchor for Sam. This way when Sam attempts to bolt, Jennifer tells Reno to ‘sit’ and ‘stay’ preventing Sam from darting off into crowds or across streets. Allowing Sam to be safer and providing a peace of mind for his parents.
Life with Reno
“There is a definite bond between Sam and Reno,” says Jennifer. “Reno is a trooper and doesn’t let Sam out of his sight. Reno knows his job is to protect Sam.”
But the two didn’t become a team overnight. They practiced as a family, going to public places as Jennifer learned how to handle Reno and Sam got used to being paired with the dog. “With Sam being older, I was having difficulties going to everyday places with him by myself. If I turned by back for a split second, Sam would take off,” said Jennifer. “Sam has learned that when we go out he has a task; he takes pride in knowing his task is to hang onto Reno.”
Even with Reno, Sam still has the occasional meltdown. It’s part of having a child with autism and Sam’s parents understand that. With Reno by his side their anxieties and worries about his safety are reduced. “Sam is impulsive and he’s active,” said Jennifer, “but now when he attempts to bolt, Reno knows to ‘stay’ and holds his position on the ground, so Sam can’t go too far.”
Jennifer also notes that Sam’s temperament has changed since Reno entered their lives. The family attended a school assembly recently and during the program Jennifer noticed Sam was getting tired. Normally Sam would have had a meltdown and Jennifer would have to take Sam out of the audience. This time however, Sam sat on the floor next to Reno and remained calm —— allowing the family to enjoy the school assembly in its entirety.
When the family goes out in public, Jennifer is frequently asked about Reno. “People see the red vest on Reno and see Sam and Reno walking together and they ask questions,” said Jennifer. “Before if Sam and I were in a public setting Sam took off, I could feel the looks of other people ‘like why can’t the parent get control of this kid?’ But now with Reno, people can see that Sam is a child with special needs, even if he looks like most five-year-olds,” she said.
Jennifer extends her thanks to those who support Can Do Canines. “Having a local organization providing this service and training is amazing,” she said. “Reno is a wonderful addition to our family. Having a safety net for Sam was our top priority and Reno provides that,” Jennifer stated. “It’s an extra bonus that Reno has become a buddy for Sam.”
Together the team is proof of the amazing accomplishments of this innovative program. “We are grateful for Reno and the unending support from the staff,” Jennifer responded. “This program has made a difference in our family’s life and I know it will help other families like ours in the future.” >