A Better Life for Julián

Autism assistance dogs act as friend, guardian and calming influence

Boys Best Friend
Dogs for Better Lives in Central Point paired Vanilla with Julian Cruc and his family in 2019. Photography by Denise Baratta.

Autism. It’s never a word you want your child’s doctor to use. It’s a diagnosis that causes gut-wrenching fear, confusion and a flood of questions.

Twelve years ago, Rosa Ochoa and her family moved to Medford from Mexico City. At that time, her English was extremely limited, so she didn’t understand the terminology the doctor used when he talked to her about her year-old son, Julián. But she knew in her heart that something was terribly wrong.

“We have two older kids, so we knew what is the next step, but with Julián there was something different. When he was 1 year old, he still doesn’t walk so we worry about him. He starts talking but then he stops. The doctor said no worry, he’s OK, some kids are slower, but I still felt something is wrong. As a mother, you just know.”

Julián was almost 2 years old when the doctor decided to run some tests. “He was pretty sure Julián has autism,” says Ochoa. “I don’t understand what this means. I think maybe he die or maybe he just needs to have a shot and he will be OK. We have many questions and the doctor say he will explain everything. I was scared.”

Autism is a developmental disorder that can include difficulties with social interaction and communication, sensitivity to sensory stimulation, and restricted and repetitive behaviors. The signs usually appear during the first three years of a child’s life. According to the U.S. Department of Education statistics, autism is growing at a rate of 10%-17% percent a year, and as of 2016, it was estimated that 1 child out of every 68 is living with some form of autism spectrum disorder.

Dogs for Better Lives responds to growing need

When Julián was 7, friends told Ochoa about autism assistance dogs through Dogs for Better Lives (formerly Dogs for the Deaf) in Central Point. “I thought it could be a great opportunity,” she says. “We applied and waited a year. I was scared because I still don’t speak good English, but they came to our house and answered all our questions. Everyone was really nice with us.”

The program is fairly new, explains Laura Encinas, certified trainer with Dogs for Better Lives (DBL). DBL is an award-winning nonprofit facility that has trained assistance dogs for those with hearing, vision, developmental and psychological disabilities since 1977. “In the past couple of years, we have placed eight or nine autism assistance dogs in the Southern Oregon area. We wanted to keep the families close, so we could monitor the progress and be available for any needs the teams might have.”

The foundational training for any assistance dog includes obedience, extensive socialization and public exposure. Each dog receives additional training specific to assisting an individual with hearing, vision or psychological impairments. The tasks that an autism assistance dog performs are all about calming, explains Encinas. “When the child becomes agitated, the dogs will put their heads in the child’s lap, or they will put their legs and chest against the child to provide pressure. The dog will also lay down, prone on the floor, and the child will lay on the dog for comfort, which helps them calm down. There’s another technique we call smoosh or squish where the dog lays its whole body on the child. I’ve seen this one used the most because it provides a physical pressure and, in a few minutes, it takes the child from total meltdown, temper tantrum, out of control to being calm.”

Autism often means challenges with social and communication abilities as well as intensified sensory reactions to sounds, lights, touch, tastes, smells and other stimuli. Autistic children can sometimes panic and run away when confronted by situations they find upsetting. “Because the child is tethered to the dog by the wrist, they provide an anchor for the child,” Encinas says. “If the dog receives pressure on the leash it will automatically sit and keep the child from running into dangerous situations, so the parent has time to regain control.”

The right stuff

Because autism dogs need to be a calming presence in the lives of these children, says Encinas, Labradors are well suited since they are laid-back, friendly and affectionate. They require little grooming or special care, bond well with their child and interact well with other family members. The dog also has to be over 55 pounds to provide that anchoring ability. “We assess each dog for the right temperament and personality to be an autism dog,” says Encinas. “They have to deal well with a lot of handling and not be overly sensitive to loud noises.”

In addition to learning the calming techniques, training involves recreating real life situations like dealing with crowds and busy public places, Encinas explains. “A lot of the dogs that we use are bred by us and fostered in our puppy program, so they have a background of obedience and socialization skills already in place. The dogs are then certified to be in public with the handler and the child. That takes about six months.”

The application process for getting a dog is intentionally rigorous, Encinas says, and not all families are selected. In addition to making the right match, the safety of the family, the child and the assistance dogs are important considerations. Once the family is approved, they are placed on a waitlist, which can take as long as two to three years.

A new best friend for Julián

Vanilla came to live with Julián, then 9, in June 2019. Though having a dog was a new experience for the family, the friendly yellow Lab has brought much happiness and many positive changes for her son, Ochoa says. “He is very engaged with Vanilla. Before, he doesn’t speak a lot, but now he is learning the commands for Vanilla to lay down or sit, or I hear him say, ‘Vanilla come,’ or ‘follow me,’ so he’s talking more. She is like a friend he can play with. She sleeps in his room. It gives him somebody to love.”

“When he has a meltdown, when he’s really stressed and angry, Vanilla presses on his back and calms him down. It has really changed his life.” Rosa Ochoa, Medford

Ochoa used to worry that Julián spent too much time indoors in front of the TV, but says, “Now he gets more exercise taking Vanilla for walks. He has to feed her and clean up after her. And before, I always had to convince him to go to the store. But now with Vanilla, we say, ‘Oh, Vanilla likes to go to the store,’ and he says, ‘Oh, let’s go!’ Holding Vanilla’s leash keeps him from running away. It makes him more in control of his impulses, to have the responsibility of the dog. When he has a meltdown, when he’s really stressed and angry, Vanilla presses on his back and calms him down. It has really changed his life.”

“When he has a meltdown, when he’s really stressed and angry, Vanilla presses on his back and calms him down. It has really changed his life.” Rosa Ochoa, Medford

It’s very moving, Encinas admits. “All the parents of these autistic children are such an inspiration to me. I consider them to be saints. I know they must have their moments, but I see such dedication, patience and understanding in their eyes, so I’m happy we can help them. It makes me feel quite emotional.”

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April is National Autism Awareness Month

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“Autism is the fastest growing developmental disability in Oregon – and the world.”

The Autism Society of Oregon

According to the Oregon Department of Education, the number of children receiving services for autism in Oregon schools increases every year. One in nine children in Oregon special education classes has autism spectrum disorder. More than 9,106 Oregon children (ages 3-21) are receiving services for autism in public schools.

Dogs for Better Lives in Central Point, formerly known as Dogs for the Deaf, is an award-winning nonprofit facility that has trained assistance dogs for those with hearing, vision, developmental and emotional disabilities since 1977. Their Autism Assistance Dogs are professionally trained to act as an anchor to reduce or slow a child’s ability to bolt, apply deep pressure and to provide companionship dedicated solely to the child.

They are now accepting applications for children throughout the states of Oregon, California, and Washington who are between the ages of 4 to 11.

Dogs for Better Lives
10175 Wheeler Road, Central Point
541.826.9220
dogsforbetterlives.org

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