Service dog makes difference for Jeffersons - Sept. 21, 2017
BY DENNY SCOTT
Robert Jefferson and his family want the community to know that Guinness, the service dog provided to them by National Service Dogs, has made a world of difference in their lives.
The Jefferson family lives in Wingham, and, several years ago, learned that Robert, now nine years old, was diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder not otherwise specified (PPD NOS), one of the four autism spectrum disorders.
Robert’s mother Marian explained that, when he was uncomfortable, he would run from a situation. She said it proved to be very stressful for the family when they were away from home.
A friend of hers who is an educational assistant at a local high school, explained that, during a professional development day program, she met a boy who was also on the autism spectrum and who had a therapy dog.
“She said the therapy was wonderful for the boy,” Marian said. “With her guidance, I took it upon myself to get in touch with National Service Dogs.”
Marian said the application process was no simple task, including 15 pages of information to be filled out covering two weeks of Robert’s regular activities.
It took nearly three years for Robert to be matched up with Guinness, a process that included interviews and, eventually, a chance for Robert to interact with a dog.
Last year, on the weekend of Mother’s Day Marian, alongside her husband Craig, attended a team training activity to meet Guinness.
“We worked with seven dogs at first, but, by the second day, we were paired with Guinness,” she said. “When we brought Guinness home, they hit it off okay, but it takes awhile for those bonds to form.”
The process to train the dog doesn’t stop when the family is paired up, Marian explained, saying that there are follow-up interviews to make sure Robert and his family are training Guinness, a part-Pyrenees, part-Lab, to be the dog Robert needs.
“Guinness is trained to detect anxiety but it takes awhile before he will be able to sense it in Robert,” she said. “The dog has made a world of difference, however. Robert usually leaves situations he doesn’t like, but now he can just sit still in quiet places with Guinness.”
Part of what makes Guinness such a good fit for Robert is that the dog is primarily under Robert’s care.
“Robert watches Guinness and it gives him something to focus on,” Marian said. “It helps a lot.”
She said the change isn’t just in Robert’s world, but the family is now able to attend events and not face as much stress.
“We don’t come home as drained,” she said. “It’s been a significant, positive change.”
She said that, in the year that the dog has been with the family, she has seen positive changes in Robert as well as some growth in Guinness, pointing to visits to the doctor as an example.
“Guinness has shown some initiative,” she said. “When he is there to help at the doctor’s office, [a situation in which] Robert has always felt nervous... he senses that and keeps Robert calm.”
Currently the family, which includes Robert’s sister Lydia and brother Lincoln, is working on getting Guinness to Maitland River Elementary School with Robert, which requires some additional training.
The biggest challenge to having Guinness at the school is education, Marian said. Service dogs shouldn’t be petted or given treats by anyone except their owners and trainers, especially when they are on duty.
“We have to explain to everyone that this is a look-but-don’t-touch situation,” she said.
Following that training, the family will be reviewed in a year, and then again every three years by the National Service Dogs organization.
Having the dog out in the public is important, Marian said, for several reasons, including letting the community know what a significant change they have made in the family’s lives.
A dog like Guinness costs $30,000, Marian explained, however the family wasn’t expected to pay any of it up front.
“It’s more of a pay-it-forward system,” she said. “Once you’re approved, you get the dog, but you’re encouraged to fundraise to help the organization.”
The Jefferson family set a goal of raising the $30,000 and was eventually able to surpass that goal.
“The community helped with events like soup lunches and a walkathon,” she said, adding that one of the earliest events was titled “A Boy and His Dog”, a moniker the entire fundraising effort adopted.
She said she was pleasantly shocked by the outpouring of support and said both she and her husband Craig want everyone to know how much it meant to them.
“We thought that friends and family would help, but the community support has been overwhelming,” she said. “We didn’t know the community knew us or would be that helpful.”
She said service groups from Wingham, Auburn, Lucknow and other surrounding communities, supported the initiative, which included a family fun day, selling cookbooks and an Oktoberfest event last year at the Knights of Columbus Centre in Wingham.