Dog helps autistic boy connect

Published: May 16, 2006 | 4147th good news item since 2003

Hunter Neubauer giggled and grabbed his dog’s head, helping her pose for the camera.

The 5-year-old boy was clearly having fun introducing Harmony to visitors at his home last week.

Harmony, Hunter’s autism assistance dog, has been with the family for about a month and is bonding well with the boy, his mother Cindy Carlson said.

“They are like two puppies playing,” Carlson said. “Harmony loves our whole family.”

Carlson and Hunter’s father Greg Neubauer learned that their little boy was autistic in 2003. He was born with the disorder, Carlson said, which makes him behave in unpredictable ways.

Autism is a complex developmental disability that is believed to be the result of a neurological disorder. Autism impacts the normal development of the brain in areas of social interaction and communications skills.

Hunter goes to pre-school and works with in-home therapists on a regular basis. He has made progress. The dog is not only his friend, but serves as another tool for Hunter’s growth, Carlson said.

Carlson and Neubauer worked for nearly a year and a half to obtain the specially trained dog for Hunter. The two are very grateful for donations that came from organizations and individuals to pay for the $9,800 flat coated retriever.

“So many people have helped,” Carlson said.

When Carlson first heard of 4 Paws For Ability, a nonprofit agency in Xenia, Ohio that provides trained dogs for disabled people, she knew a dog would be a big help for her boy. Autism assistance dogs are the agency’s specialty.

The agency often uses retrievers and Labradors for this purpose. Harmony was rescued from a shelter by 4 Paws For Ability, Carlson said.

The agency helped match Hunter to Harmony after the family sent in a video.

“We choose a dog that fits a child’s personality,” said Karen Shirk, executive director of 4 Paws For Ability.

Among other things, the dogs are trained to help autistic people stop repetitive behaviors such as hand-slapping that are a hallmark of the disorder, so they are better able to connect with the world around them, Shirk said.

The dogs are also trained to track children if they get lost. Autistic children sometimes wander off and, because they don’t have natural fears of heights, fire, water or even oncoming traffic, the dogs can literally save their lives, Shirk said.

Autistic dogs are trained to comfort autistic people when they are anxious or frustrated.

“If a child has a melt down, the snuggling command is used and the dog will put its head and feet into the child’s lap to calm him,” Shirk said.

Carlson and Hunter traveled to Ohio for 10 days of training before bringing Harmony home. Family members continue to reinforce the skills they learned while at 4 Paws for Ability.

Meanwhile, Hunter is enjoying taking command of his own dog.

“Hunter gives her lots of treats. That’s part of the training. Harmony is very smart,” Carlson said.

It pleases Carlson to see Hunter turn to Harmony for comfort. The two sit together on the couch and Harmony lays her head on Hunter’s lap, Carlson said.

Already, Carlson has seen her son’s response to having his own dog.

“Hunter was so proud when I brought him to school. A dog can draw the rest of the world to him. She can help him to make friends,” Carlson said.

Harmony senses her purpose.

“She knows she’s here for a reason. Hunter is different. Harmony can be his connection to the rest of the world,” Carlson said.

Published in Animals
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