They unexpectedly shared the limelight November 17 in the Rogue Valley Mall, where Dogs for the Deaf inaugurated its newest program. He’s not quite six; she’s almost four. He’s Kiefer Morris; she’s known simply as Ginger.
Sporting a specially-equipped purple vest, black Lab mix Ginger, proudly becomes DFD’s Autism Assistance program’s first graduate.
DFD President and CEO Robin Dickson greeted three Trail residents who
arrived first. Little Butte School student Kiefer accompanied his
parents, Shannon and Scott Morris, who’d read of the presentation in a
previous issue of the Upper Rogue Independent.
diagnosed as severely autistic at age three," his mom said. "He’s in
the Steps Program at LBS. This helps him with life skills, such as
putting on his jacket, and tolerating people."
opening remarks covered a brief background of her corporation’s latest
program and its goals. "For thirty-one years, we’ve rescued, trained,
and placed top quality Hearing Dogs throughout the US and Canada," she
said. "Now we’re proud to announce this pilot Autism Assistance Dog
program." Dickson decried current astronomical increases in autism,
adding that her staffs new endeavor would allow them to help more
people and more pooches.
She stressed that DFD would
continue its primary mission–training and placing canines with people
who have hearing losses. She noted that DFD receives its support
entirely through private donations.
Dickson next turned the
program over to Ginger’s three handlers. Jodi Hangartner, Training
Department Team Leader, received three weeks of instruction from
National Service Dogs, an agency near Toronto, Canada. According to
Dickson, who also visited the facility, it has successfully operated an
Autism Dog program for ten years.
Certified Audio Canine Trainer, Carrie Brooks, who along with
Apprentice Trainer Kaye Geyler, coached Ginger to show the crowd what
she’s learned. Hangartner explained why they select larger breeds for
this program’s needs.
"An autistic child tends to bolt
suddenly," she said. A heavier animal acts as an anchor to stop the
child; it also tends to abide some unavoidable tugging or pinching. "We
don’t encourage children to pinch pups or pull their tails," Brooks
said. "But, especially at first, these actions may occur."
we found Ginger, we knew she was a natural-born autism assistance dog,"
said Hangartner. "She has the caring disposition, and all the traits
we look for."
Applicants for these dogs need securely
fenced-in backyards, she continued. Known as "puppies for five years,"
Labs have tendencies to scamper out of yards, and to explore.
demonstration purposes, Brooks portrayed the parent, taking hold of a
leash and padded bar attached to Ginger’s vest. Geyler played the part
of the child, with a second lead fastened around her waist as she and
"parent" strolled with the pup. When "child" Geyler attempted to bolt,
Ginger halted the run by assuming a seated, anchoring position. This
conveys a calming effect on an unpredictable tot. Autistic youngsters
also make eye contact, and bond with their dogs sooner than with
humans, Brooks said.
In reply to audience members’
questions, Hangartner clarified that Ginger would be neither a
four-legged babysitter, nor a search-and-rescue dog. Parents or
guardians would still be expected to accompany their little ones on
walks. DFD won’t be sending autism assistance dogs to school with
Will Kiefer Morris someday apply for an
assistance dog? Although it’s currently not feasible because of
requirements that preclude other pets, the option remains under future
consideration, his mom says.
By F. C. Blake
Of the Independent