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Megan Brimner

Service dogs can aid people in many ways, assisting people young and old in a variety of tasks. Hank, a 3-year-old German Shepherd Dog, has changed the life of 10-year-old Harrison Brimner, who is autistic, and the lives of his Aliquippa, Pennsylvania family.

“We’re able to do things we previously couldn’t,” says Megan Brimner, Harrison’s mother. “Since Hank came into our home three years ago, he has been the best thing that has ever happened to our family.” Hank’s heroics, subtle at times, more pronounced at others, earned him the 2023 American Kennel Club Award for Canine Excellence (ACE) in the Service Dog category. Each year, the AKC Humane Fund awards five dogs who do extraordinary things in the service of humankind in different categories: Uniformed Service K-9, Therapy Dog, Search and Rescue Dog, Exemplary Companion, and Service Dogs, like Hank. Dogs in Hank’s category are those who enrich the lives of people with disabilities, and can include guide dogs, medical-alert dogs, hearing dogs, and more. Hank is this year’s Service Dog ACE winner, awarded for his incredible impact on Harrison’s life. “Having Hank in our midst is like night and day,” says Megan.

Hank’s Impact on Harrison

“We were having issues with Harrison’s aggressiveness, due to him being nonverbal,” Megan says. “The only way he could express his displeasure or protest was to act out physically – hitting, pinching, biting, etc.” Things like eating at a restaurant, riding in cars, and going into stores were really not possible for the family to do with Harrison.

“Previously, Harrison could not deal with grocery shopping and would become overstimulated by the lights and sounds. Now he’s able to enter the store without a problem, helps put items in the cart and assists in checking out.” Megan says that Harrison doesn’t always love changes in his routine, but he does tolerate these changes more easily since Hank has been in their lives. “[Harrison] can get through it without getting aggressive. He’s found other ways to cope with change and activities he may not love.”

Megan Brimner

Before Hank, Harrison often left the family yard unattended. “He also sought out any means he could find to leave the house,” Megan says. “We had put up a fence, put alarms on our doors and share with our neighbors that he will attempt to run away.” Hank is trained to only leave the back door of the house to go outside, and his presence has proven enough to keep Harrison safe at home. Another area of parental concern were parking lots, where Harrison would pull away from his parents and attempt to run. This behavior has also stopped thanks to Hank.

Finding the Right Service Dog Fit for Harrison

Harrison’s behavior prompted Megan and her husband, Paul Brimner, to consider getting him a service dog to help. They hoped that a service dog would help calm Harrison’s aggression. She reached out to their Behavioral Specialist Consultant, who pointed them towards the staff at Harrison’s school.

Harrison’s first-grade teacher recommended talking to a family in the school district that experienced success with a service dog for their son.

This conversation set the wheels rolling to K9s for Kids, where the Brimners met Chief Executive and Founder, Steve Kiray. They were able to watch a training session at a nearby park, where they met families working their service dogs in training. “We knew when we left that day,” she said, “that we had to make this happen for Harrison.” Soon after, a fund drive was set up to raise money for a service dog for Harrison.

The Brimners decided to visit Kiray’s farm in hopes of finding the perfect match for Harrison. But after the hour-long car ride, Harrison was angry and chose not to get out of car. Kiray had set up a pen for the puppies so that the Brimners could meet them when they arrived, but Brimner was worried that Harrison wouldn’t want to meet them. “Steve said not to worry and told Paul and I to just play with the puppies and get a feel for them, to hopefully coax Harrison out of car.”

Kiray had put colored collars on all the puppies to identify them. The couple played with all of them, but one stuck out more than the others: the German Shepherd Dog puppy wearing a red band. The Brimners felt the special connection right away, and decided to take that dog home. Kiray later told them that the puppy was whining and crying when they were trying to get Harrison to come out of the car, and that he felt this was a sign that Harrison and the puppy were meant for one another.

Megan Brimner

Harrison: Hank’s Person

On April 11, 2020, the puppy with the red band was welcomed home, but with one main rule: Harrison was the only person allowed to feed him. The Brimners hoped that this would help not only establish Harrison’s bond with the puppy, but also help Harrison learn to train the service dog. They ended up naming the puppy “Hank,” short for Henry. “If we were to have a third child we were going to name him Henry. Hank, for short, after Indiana Jones,” Megan says. “We gave the name to this special German Shepherd [Dog]. It just fit.”

After Hank understood that Harrison would be the one feeding him, housebreaking and crate training followed. “It took only two days to housebreak Hank,” Megan says. Crate training required four or five. Hank whined for the first few nights, but quickly learned he was dealing with two very active boys and that his crate was his refuge, not a punishment.”

Megan Brimner

They took this time to do Hank’s basic training, and just let him be a puppy. Once Hank’s formal service dog training began, the family would be busier. It wouldn’t just be learning process for Hank, but for the family as well. And so, Service Dog training began.

Service Dog Training — A Family Affair

Training at K9s for Kids is a year-long process. The family attended sessions with Hank and Harrison every Sunday morning, no matter the weather conditions. Sessions focused on different trainings: 30 minutes of obedience work, and another half hour of tracking. These skills were important for Hank to learn, especially so that he could be the best Service Dog for Harrison.

Some of the training included training Hank to follow designated paths, using Harrison’s scent. Megan, Harrison and Paul would follow a path that Kiray would set for them. Paul was trained as Hank’s tracking handler, using the dog to follow Megan and Harrison’s scent through the woods of a nearby park. In case Harrison ever ran away or got lost, Hank would be the first deployed to track him down. During that first year of training, Kiray gave the family homework each week, which included fine-tuning obedience and tracking skills and task-training Hank to follow Harrison to stop him should he bolt and run.

Megan Brimner

Following graduation from training, the Brimners had to return quarterly to refresh their skills. During these meetings, the family would demonstrate to Kiray that they were maintaining the training regimen for Hank, so that Hank could continue to be the best service dog possible for Harrison.

Service Dog and Family Companion

Hank has made an indelible impact on the Brimner family, and the changes for Harrison’s life have been monumental. Before Hank, Harrison hated car rides. When the family started going to his service dog trainings about an hour away by car, Harrison began to tolerate car rides much more. The breakthroughs kept coming. As Hank moved through his journey toward becoming a service dog, Harrison was experiencing his own journey. Harrison and his family were able to sit and have lunch breaks together at a nearby drive-in after training sessions, which, prior to Hank, would not have been possible.

Hank can most often be found at Harrison’s side, but not during school. “That’s only because we don’t feel he is able to control Hank and adequately give him commands,” explains Megan. “They have an emotional support dog at his school for all the students, so that helps fill a need if Harrison requires it.”

Sarah Rowan

Hank wasn’t immune to experiencing separation anxiety once Harrison returned to the classroom when in-person schooling resumed. As part of their new routine, Harrison would prepare Hank’s meal in the mornings, but the dog initially refused to eat it until the fourth-grader returned home from school. The Brimners discussed the issue with Kiray, who assured them that Hank would eat when he got hungry. It took about a month for Hank to adjust to Harrison’s knew schedule, but once his dog understood that Harrison was coming back, their routine was back in sync.

Megan says that Hank has not only formed a tight, loving bond with Harrison, but with the Brimner family, too. Hank is in tune with Harrison’s needs, and the service dog interacts seamlessly with their other son, Hudson, 8, and the family’s blind, 14-year-old mixed breed dog, Jack Bauer. “Whenever Jack Bauer goes outside to the bathroom, Hank accompanies him and won’t come back inside without him,” says Megan. “You might say Hank is the complete family dog.”
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This article was originally published in AKC Family Dog magazine. Subscribe today ($12.95 for 6 issues, including digital edition) to get expert tips on training, behavior, health, nutrition, and grooming, and read incredible stories of dogs and their people.
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