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This Special Service Dog Helps Autistic Child in Many Ways

 Regal is a 3-year-old Labrador Retriever-Golden Retriever mix who has a very special purpose in life. He is trained to be a constant companion to a 9-year-old boy who has autism. Read on to learn about their amazing bond:

For most of his life, Eli Ottenwess never experienced the joys of friendship.

Diagnosed with autism at age 3, the Michigan boy has difficulty with social interactions. He had no school mates who visited for sleep overs or invited him to parties.

Eli’s two younger sisters were his only playmates until last year when the 9-year-old met a buddy who understands him perfectly.

Regal is a 3-year-old retriever who has become Eli’s best friend. When not romping, the two can be found snuggling.

“I would say the greatest benefit to Eli since having Regal is companionship.  Because of his autism, he has never had any friends besides his sisters,” said Eli’s mother, Kristina Ottenwess. “Eli loves having Regal go out to the backyard with him to play ball. I love watching the two of them together.”

Regal is a service dog whose purpose is helping Eli cope with autism.

In addition to providing unconditional love, Regal is trained to perform crucial duties such as stopping Eli from bolting and running away.

“Regal’s main job is to prevent Eli from wandering when we are out in public,” Kristina said. “My husband Jered and I are Regal’s certified handlers and always have his leash, but Eli has his own leash that is attached to Regal’s service jacket and goes around Eli’s wrist.

“I am able to go places by myself with all three of my children now because Regal is with us.  He calms Eli and keeps him with me. That is a priceless gift.”

Kristina started researching service dogs after seeing national news stories about the benefits that dogs provide to children with autism.

“As Eli’s mom, I would do anything to help him with the challenges of autism and improve his quality of life,” she said.

Kristina found Paws With A Cause® (PAWS®) – a Michigan-based service dog organization. She applied and after undergoing an extensive evaluation and training program, Regal joined the Ottenwess home in August 2017.

PAWS is a non-profit national organization that has provided thousands of service dogs at no charge to eligible individuals and relies primarily on donations for funding.

The group started by chance in 1979 after founder Michael D. Sapp Sr. agreed to help a friend and his wife, who are both deaf. The couple had adopted a deaf infant and asked dog trainer Sapp if he could teach their Cairn Terrier to alert them to the sound of their baby crying.

Sapp did train the dog and soon was approached by other deaf people with the same request. Sapp and his wife, Candye Sapp, started the organization, Ears for the Deaf, and over the years it became PAWS and expanded into training of several types of service dogs, including Service Dogs for Autism, Seizure Response Dogs, and Service Dogs for people with physical disabilities.

Each type of service dog requires certain traits depending on the type of work.

“A Service Dog for Autism (SDA) should be mellow and not easily startled, enjoy the company of children, and be very patient,” said Kari Norton, a PAWS Field Representative for Southeast Michigan.

The most popular breeds for the work are Labrador Retrievers and Golden Retrievers or mixes of the two breeds, like Regal who is a “50/50.”

“They are taught to hold their ground when the child tries to bolt away, settle nicely for grooming and petting, play endless fetch, and provide constant companionship,” Norton said. “The dogs tend to increase social skills and even vocabulary as people ask about the dog, and the child gives the dog commands. They even help families get a lot more sleep!”

Eli spends more time playing outside since Regal joined the family, Kristina said. He loves to throw the ball for Regal, and the two swam together over the summer.

“That was very special as Eli loves swimming. Regal is an extremely laid-back dog and loves to relax and snuggle with the whole family.  Most importantly he just wants to be with us all the time,” she said.

PAWS breeds most of their dogs, which include Papillons for hearing dogs and Poodles for people with allergies. They occasionally take donations of suitable dogs and trade with similar organizations, such as Leader Dogs for the Blind also located in Michigan.

Training and socialization starts early for these future working dogs. A typical PAWS dog is in a puppy raiser home for one year, during which time they attend puppy classes. They then spend a year in a prison-based training program, followed by returning to PAWS for a year of advanced training. They go to their new homes around 3 years of age.

There is also training for the families who receive the dogs. Following their in-home needs assessment and approval for a service dog, the Ottenwess family spent a week at PAWS to work with Regal and a lead trainer.

“We practiced going on public outings and many other scenarios. It was truly one of the best weeks of our lives and an experience we will never forget,” Kristina said.

Training and support did not end when Regal came home. Norton was assigned as the Ottenwess’ field representative. She met with them regularly for four months to continue training. Jered and Kristina then tested at PAWS to become Regal’s certified handlers. They continue to work with the field rep as needed and must re-certify every two years to assure that both owner and dog are staying consistent on training and commands.

“Any dog is a responsibility and commitment, a service dog even more so as he goes everywhere with us. He is so special and highly trained; we have to be so diligent with his health, safety and well-being,” Kristina said. “But the return and the love he provides to Eli and us far outweighs anything else.  I consider Regal my son, my fourth child. We are so blessed to have him.”

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