Stories

More Than My Best Friend - KCJ Szwedzinski

“Are we home yet?,” asks Dani “Iʼm really tired.” After 5 hours in the car, the entire family is ready to be home and in bed for the night. No one has eaten dinner yet and so we stop for a quick bite off the highway. Dani is looking pale and lethargic and we take her to the bathroom to splash some water on her face. Her service dog Flux is acting fidgety and wonʼt leave her side. We figured that it was because of the loFriendng car ride and even longer weekend filled with activity. In the dirty bathroom on the side of the highway, Dani has a seizure. Flux sits between her legs in the dingy bathroom as she shakes and then slowly comes to after 15 stressful minutes. As Dani returns to cognition, one of the first sensory experiences she has is of Fluxʼs fur between her fingers and Fluxʼs tongue on her hands. She hasnʼt let go of Fluxʼs fur through the entire experience. Flux is her tether back to the world and grounds her in space as her mind tries to make sense of itʼs recent experience. Dani is 17 and has Autism. At the time this experience took place she was 13. Flux is her service dog and was never trained to be a seizure alert dog and yet has filled the role through necessity rather than training.

Autism service dogs can play a huge role in the lives of individuals with autism, increasing the quality of life and enhancing the connection to their community and loved ones. The most asked question I get apart from “can I pet them?” is probably “how do service dogs help kids with autism?” This answer may be very different since the truest statement I have ever heard about autism is that once youʼve met one child with autism, youʼve met one child with autism. The way autism presents can be so drastically different from child to child that the most broad and generic answer to the question of how a service dog can help is that they are a constant companion in an otherwise overstimulating world. Iʼll be talking about how a service dog can enrich the lives of these individuals, how to decide if it may be something that is right for your family and what a service dog ISNʼT!

A service dog is many things, one of the sweetest and most easily seen being that of an individualʼs best friend. Many kids with autism are insular in their interactions with others. This can create a spiral of inaccessibility to connecting with others. If a child is non-verbal, has a hard time making eye contact and isnʼt interested in others itʼs hard to create experiences for them that will build social skills and relationships. A service dog, at the individual level, will be a best friend. There is a relationship forming between these two sentient beings with no judgement or expectations attached. This creates a platform that can be built upon. Through this simple bond the child has learned love and acceptance and responsibility. If a child with autism struggles with sensory overstimulation, having a dog present lowers the stress hormones that can flood the system and lead to other physical stress induced systemic problems such as panic attacks, seizures or heightened blood pressure among others. In Daniʼs case Flux is the thing she trusts most in a world that can be difficult to navigate. Dani learned responsibility and self care through taking care of her dog. She learned that Flux had physical and emotional needs that had to be met everyday and by learning to take care of Flux associative learning followed in how to meet her own dietary and hygienic needs. By using the dog as part of a learning frame, tasks and skills can be illustrated in a non threatening way. The dogs in this way can also be used to teach sequential task management which can be a struggle for many kids with autism and something that can also be taxing for the care givers who are repeatedly reminding a child of the same things. The kids respond to the needs of the dog and while learning how to feed, walk, brush and care for the dog, other skills can be integrated into the daily routine. Going out in public becomes easier for the family unit and turns into a teachable moment rather than one of panic. Many families report stories of going out in public and feeling shamed when there kids have a melt down or difficult time. When the dog is with them, the parents are less stressed out because the kids are less stressed out and the response from the community is one of smiles and acceptance.

Now that you can see how having a dog around can create a calmer, happier and more integrated child, here is where the higher level therapeutic and social skills enhancing work can begin. Having spoken to the one on one nature of the relationship between child and dog itʼs time to speak to the interactions between child, dog and community. The dogs become a bridge to the community by inviting the public in. If social skills is a desired goal for a family then the dogʼs vest can have a patch that says “ask to pet me Iʼm friendly” and people will approach the dog and child and strike up a conversation. This creates spontaneous, scripted interactions where the child can practice language, social and interpersonal skills with others. If a child elopes in public a harness can be used to keep the team together and can lower stress as the dog learns to “brace” and not let the child run away. After time, the child may recognize to stay within the radius of the family and not have a desire to take off.

The beneficial outcomes of a service dog for a child with autism are numerous. Itʼs important to note here however that a service dog is not a magic fix for autism. A service dog should be part of a holistic therapeutic approach to autism. The dog should be brought into the other therapies that the child will be attending whether they are occupational, physical, speech therapy or another. The decision to take on a service dog is a laborious task that involves rigorous training and learning. You are deciding to take on another family member as well as becoming an advocate for you and your child. Learning your rights and how to have a dog that is well mannered and trained is no small feat. If, after considering these points you think a service dog is right for your family and child, make sure to do your research on the agency that you choose. Ask questions about where the dogs come from and what the training expectations will look like. Educate yourself and lastly, to all of you warrior parents and care takers I send acknowledgements your way. I know the road is long and filled with as many ludicrous moments of joy as heart wrenching tears and to you I say Bravo.

Please feel free to reach out to us at info@projectchance.com with any questions or inquiries.

Flux, an Autism Service Dog
One little girl's best friend.

From First Coast Magazine - Written by Maggie FitzRoy

Dani Moore first met Flux when Flux was a little fuzzy 8-week old puppy.
She and Flux had “puppy dates,” when they played together.

Dani was there when Flux was being housebroken.

Flux learned how to go to restaurants with Dani, and Dani and her family learned how to take her to them.

When Dani, now 15, got Flux in 2009, her dog changed her life. Because Dani has autism, a disorder characterized by difficulties with communication, social interaction and repetitive behaviors. And Flux is a specially trained autism service dog.
Flux can sometimes sense when Dani is about to have a seizure, and comforts her during and after the episode.

Thanks to Flux, Dani is no longer too anxious to get on airplanes, or to have her blood drawn for medical tests.

When kids see Dani with Flux, they go up to talk to her because they think her dog is cool.
And when Dani is out in public, people don’t make negative judgments about her when she walks awkwardly or “acts quirky,” Dani’s mother Julie Buckley said.
“I hear people say, ‘look, that dog is helping that girl,’” Buckley said. “So there’s kindness and empathy instead of shunning.”

“She means everything to me,” Dani said of Flux one recent day during a trip with her mom and dog to Winn-Dixie.

“If I have a seizure, she’s right there,” Dani said. “She’s done a lot for me, and I’ve done a lot for her.”

Dani got Flux from the Fernandina Beach-based nonprofit organization Project Chance, which trains Golden Retrievers specifically to work with people with autism.

Buckley, a Ponte Vedra Beach pediatrician who specializes in treating children with autism, knew of the organization through her work. She called Project Chance founder/director/president B.J. Szwedzinski when Dani started having seizures, in what Buckley says was “a cry for help.”

The seizures were the straw that broke the camel’s back. Dani had become anxious about doing things she used to do. Flux calms her down and distracts her from what is causing her to worry.

In general, autism dogs reduce anxiety and help to increase focus, said Szwedzinski, who so far has placed 21 dogs. She said since owners are expected to participate in the care of their animals, it also gives them leadership skills and gives them something to focus on besides themselves.

Since the dogs can go anywhere with their owners, they also act as a bridge between school, therapy, and home life, Szwedzinski said.

“Flux has opened up Dani’s world.”

Flux has gone with Dani and her family to Disney World, Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon.

Thanks to Flux, Dani sings in the youth choir at Christ Episcopal Church, because her dog can go with her.

Last year, Flux and Dani, along with Moore, sang and danced in the church’s musical production of “The Music Man.”

Dani is capable of doing so much, because her focus is on her dog in those environments, Moore said. “They’re a team.”

Puppy Raiser by Chance - Contributed by Michelle Pickar

Flashback August 2009.  I set my eyes on a beautiful golden retriever.  It turns out her name was Apple and her owner was Nancy Hickman.   Little did I know at that time how entwined our lives would become over the years. In April 2010 months after getting to know Nancy, she asked if I would be interested in joining the Turtle Watch group.  My response was, “I don't think so, but I'd love to volunteer with Project C.H.A.N.C.E.”  And that's how it all began for me loving all those golden retrievers over the years, seeing the benefits to all those children with autism, seeing the hopes and dreams of all their parents coming true, witnessing miracles.

I went on puppy outings with Nancy and a few weeks later I met BJ at a fundraiser at Chili's restaurant (she had been on the trail hiking).   That was the day she asked me if I wanted to be a puppy raiser.  I recall laughing.  Ozlow showed up at my door the next day, along with food, crate and vest.  Boy, did I not know what I was getting into.  Ozlow was 7 months old at that time and she was a very spirited puppy.  Training, training and more training came after that – for me – as BJ tried her best to impart her training knowledge to my benefit.  So, each training and challenging the other, Ozlow and I grew up together.  She was and still is the funniest dog I know.  Her true joy came from making people laugh.

Over the next few months I met a few of the families waiting for their puppies and began to see the positive influence the puppies had on their children and the family as a whole.  I was definitely in this for the parents.  If I could make their lives a little easier by training a dog for their child, that would be time well spent.

I have had many adventures with our Project C.H.A.N.C.E. puppies.  I hosted and worked with all of them at one time or another in my home.  Ozlow's brother, Owen positively melted my heart (my first boy dog crush) and Archer, their sister, accompanied to the opposite coast when we went to Portland, OR hiking.  Once, Ozlow got her permanent job, Sullivan and Vega came along.  Sullivan spent the most time with me and benefited from the misadventures in training that Ozlow and I had.  She was ready for her full time job at one year old and off she went to California.

Campbell and Finley came next, Hudson (another heart breaker) and Hopper after that and then Chatham, Thule and even Zen-Bowie have all enriched my life with their antics.  Our adventures (oh and training too) led us to the zoo, airport, parks, movies, all manner of doctor's and dentist offices, restaurants and malls.  We went to city commission meetings, campaigned, voted and went to school. We also, spent nearly every Saturday morning at Fernandina's Farmers Market greeting people and telling them about the work the dogs do.  We had many adventures with their families and children too.  That was always the best...seeing a working dog with their child and BJ working with them.  It just didn't get any better than that.

So, it's been almost 4 years (wow how time flies) since little Olzow first came to my home and many, many puppies since then.  Some I get more attached to than others, but I truly loved them all.  Twelve of them are now helping their young people and their parents to have an easier life.  The question I get asked most often is, “How can you do that, how can you let a dog go that you've lived and worked with for so long, doesn't it break your heart?”  I hesitate. “Of course it does, but there are more children, and more families and more puppies and more adventures waiting for me, and I wouldn't want to get in the way of a miracle happening.”



Project Chance -
by Rachel Denton (features writer)

Dogs have been dubbed man’s best friend for centuries. Families adopt thousands of dogs every year for numerous reasons: to play with children, to have a companion to love, to help the blind, but one particularly interesting reason that people adopt is to help children with autism. Founded by B.J. Szwedzinski, Project Chance is a program that trains golden retrievers as service dogs to autistic children by simply giving the autistic kids a sense of freedom and confidence.

Memorial Drive Elementary has their very own Project Chance dog, Ozlow. This special dog works with the special education teacher at Memorial Drive, Mrs. Brooke Thomas. Ozlow is actually a therapy dog, which differs from a service dog in that it is trained to provide assistance to a group rather than a specific individual. This school year is the first that Ozlow has been in Mrs. Thomas’s classroom. Mrs. Thomas reports, “[Ozlow] is able to sense the students’ meltdowns before I can tell they are coming and she will go to them and nudge them and try to distract them.” The dog additionally helps the children with verbal communication. She interacts with the nondisabled students as well, and she is loved throughout Memorial Drive.

There is a wide range of factors that those living with autism may be subjected to, but the good news is that service dogs’ assistance ranges over a wide span as well. Service dogs are able to help autistic children with “language and communication, daily living and self-help skills, reduction of challenging behaviors and an increase in replacement behaviors, play and leisure time, socialization and community involvement, coping skills and self-regulation.”

A few Project Chance Dogs (Vega, Ozlow, and Sullivan) were recently at Laura Walker Park for the Autism Family Picnic. The dogs were constantly seen playing with the children, but they didn’t fail to efficiently carry out their jobs. The familes who participated in the event were delighted at the friendly and calm nature of the two service dogs (Vega and Sullivan) and one therapy dog (Ozlow).

Project Chance welcome the help offered from students and families alike. Ware County High’s students are frequent visitors to Florida’s Fernandina Beach; on a weekend that students are down, the following options are available to volunteer for Project Chance: walk the dogs, prepare grants, assist with a fundraiser, or give monetary donations. There may even be a chance for students’ service hours to be considered for Beta Club! The idea will be addressed to Mrs. Thebuad, and students will be informed at a future date. The organization is located at 95512 Arbor Lane; more information can be found at www.projectchance.com. 

 

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