By Haley Remenar
Photography by Beth Dukes
The first day of school can come with excitement and anxiousness for any kid. But what about for a child with high-functioning autism?
For Emma McDaniel, the first day of 2nd grade at Merkel Elementary School wasn’t as hard as previous years, because she had her service dog, Zoe, by her side.
“When she gets overwhelmed, Zoe will go in there and just help calm her; that way we don’t end up in that full meltdown,” said Emma’s mother, Ashley McDaniel.
Children with autism can get upset by overstimulation or a change of schedule –two things that are inevitable on the first day of school. But Ashley said just having Zoe near to pet or cuddle with, made it easier for Emma to handle.
Service animals make life easier for their owners in many ways. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, a service dog is “any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.”
To understand the life of service these dogs lead, we’ll meet four owners and their dogs and learn four elements to training a service animal: confidence, patience, work and play.
Clay & Lola
It takes confidence, both from the handler and the dog, to make provide the service the handler needs. For Air Force veteran Clay Luthy, his dog had to be confident to tell him when something was wrong. He said his first service dog, Charlotte, would actually disobey him if she sensed something off in his body.
“It’s intelligent disobedience,” Clay said. “She was about 7 years old when I finally realized she’s smarter than I am.”
One day Charlotte refused to get in the car, Clay said. The golden retriever could smell when the chemicals in Clay’s body were at a dangerous level, and although Clay did not describe his disability, he said it would have been dangerous for him to drive in that moment. Charlotte licked his hand, refusing to get in the car, and alerting him to a problem he couldn’t even see. As soon as Clay’s levels were back to normal, he said she hopped right in the car.
Dawn & Andiamo
Confidence is key for Happy Valley resident Dawn Edwards who relies on her dog for mobility.
Dawn has multiple sclerosis, a disease that affects her nervous system, sometimes causing mobility issues. Her dog’s name is Andiamo, which is fitting since the word is Italian for “here we go,” and because of him, Dawn said she is able to travel independently.
“We’ve been on the road solo many times to Arizona, Iowa, Missouri, Florida…and stops in between,” Dawn said. “He has been my side through surgeries, a widowmaker heart attack, kidney dialysis, a fractured shoulder. I couldn’t have done it alone.”
The hunting dog is larger than most, standing at about 2 feet tall from the shoulders. He wears a red harness with a handle for Dawn to lean on.
“If I were to fall, or say, I couldn’t see, he would wait for someone to come. He wouldn’t leave me.”
If she falls, she says “Post,” the command for Ammo to stand still so she can use him like a post to climb back up to standing.
Whitney and Lexi
Whitney Bosch, a Hardin-Simmons University student, also relies on her dog for mobility. Her Australian shepherd, Lexi, has skills called “counter-balancing” and “bracing.” Whitney suffers from a genetic connective tissue disease called ehlers dalos syndrome. She said the disease affects her joints and can cause low energy.
“Looking back on my first year of college and having her there with me helped me so immensely,” Whitney said, “to get through that, and to do well.”
Lexi also tugs Whitney forward in a trained skill called “forward-momentum pulling.”
Emma & Zoe
Confidence is also key for Zoe, Emma McDaniel’s service dog, because she has to be there for Emma even when she has meltdowns. At the same time, she gives Emma confidence to handle transitions, new schedules and public places, said Emma’s mom, Ashley.
They adopted Zoe, a golden retriever, as a puppy in August, and they began her public access and obedience training in December.
“From day one, she would go with her everywhere,” Ashley said. “I was surprised at how quickly they bonded.”
Ashley said because of Emma’s autism meltdowns, she had some trouble making friends with other children at school. But once she started having Zoe around, other children felt comfortable with her.
“Having Zoe around is making her come out of her shell a little more,” Ashley said. “The kids at school when they see us coming in, they get excited for Emma.”
Clay & Lola
Training a service dog requires extreme patience from the handlers.
“Repetition, repetition, repetition,” Clay said, explaining how he got his dog to perform a task.
Clay’s first dog, Charlotte, died in August, but before she retired from serving him, she helped train Clay’s new dog, Lola. Also a golden retriever, Lola watched Charlotte for hours and learned from her how to sense Clay’s levels and alert him.
“Lola would be in her service-dog-in-training vest,” Clay said. “Monkey-see, monkey do. Charlotte could see what Lola would do and then copy it.”
Clay didn’t know for sure if Lola would be a good service dog, but he spent hours training her, and now she can retrieve items that he drops and help him stand up if he falls.
For Charlotte, public access training came naturally because Charlotte wasn’t easily distracted. Clay said because she was a herding dog, toys motivated Charlotte more than food. Although toys and play also motivate Lola, on a day-to-day basis, Clay rewards her with lamb liver treats he dried himself and keeps in a pouch at his hip.
Dawn & Andiamo
Even before she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2003, Dawn already had a love for animals – she trained dogs, trained horses and worked as a vet tech. At one point in her life she lived in California where she showed and exercised horses, so she was already familiar with the type of training she had to do for Andiamo.
“Timing is very important,” Dawn said. “It takes a lot of coordination on your part.”
Andiamo passed the “Canine Good Citizen” test and the public access test. This involved greeting people or other dogs and teaching her dog to ignore the new people or dogs.
“We went to the food court and then you toss food at him for four minutes, and he’s to lay right where he is and not move until I come back,” Dawn said.
Andiamo can push buttons in an elevator, turn on and off a light switch, or retrieve paper towels.
Competitive dog trainer Jan Andrews works for Christian Dog Training in Abilene, a company that Dawn worked with to continue Andiamo’s education. She said one of the biggest challenges for dogs is socialization. Many owners don’t know how to handle their dogs around other dogs.
“They’re pack animals,” Andrews said. “They want to know their leader can handle situations. We say, ‘The dog owner’s nervousness goes down the leash to the dog.’ They think, ‘If my boss is scared, maybe I need to take over.’”
Andrews also said that people often have trouble telling their dog “no,” and that can lead to some dogs having bad behavior in public.
Whitney & Lexi
Whitney adopted her dog, Lexi, from a rescue shelter near Austin. She said because Lexi was rescued from an unhealthy situation, she had to be patient with her, getting her healthy and teaching her not to be skittish.
“It takes a lot of patience,” Whitney said. “You have to know your dog and know what works for them.”
Lexi is more motivated by praise, while Whitney’s puppy-in-training, Atticus, is more motivated by food. It takes patience to tell your dog “no,” she said, but people do need to give their dogs boundaries. She said humans tend to project human emotions on dogs, but dogs don’t think the way we do.
“While I do have a super deep connection to her,” Whitney said, “I understand that she doesn’t see the world the way we do.”
Whitney said training Atticus, a German shepherd, requires just as much patience from her as training Lexi because Atticus is still a puppy and not as well-behaved yet.
Emma & Zoe
Zoe’s handlers not only had to have patience in training her, but also in getting her in the first place. Ashley said their family couldn’t afford to purchase and train a service animal, along with the expenses for autism therapy. So last July they decided to host a softball tournament called “Emma’s Not Blue” to raise money to get a service animal.
“My hope is that we can do another one next summer, that way we can raise money for another kid with autism,” Ashley said. “We were paying 800 to 900 dollars a month on therapy without insurance….if we could just help any other kids, it would be awesome.”
But before she could get her dog, Emma also had to show some patience and work for her dog. Ashley said she and Emma’s father required Emma to do kind things and go a certain amount of time without a meltdown for two to three months before she could get her dog.
After they got Zoe, they used positive reinforcement to get her to bond with Emma. Every time Zoe looked at Emma, she could get a treat –cheese is her favorite. Ashley said Zoe learned fast and finished her public access training in May.
Like a trained employee in a skilled profession, service dogs are taught to focus on their work when they’re in public with their handler.
For Clay Luthy’s dog, Lola, she knows she’s working when her vest is on and when the vest comes off, she’s allowed to play with people.
“You’ve got customers all the time that want to touch her and want to pet her,” Clay said. “Charlotte could handle the distractions, but Lola can’t.”
Understanding that a service dog is learning is one of the main things their handlers have to educate the public about. Clay’s 5-year-old son grew up with his dad having a service dog, and Clay said he will often tell people “She’s working, you can’t pet her.”
Dawn & Andiamo
Dawn Edwards said at times she gets tired, and it can be hard for her to have energy when people ask to pet her dog, Andiamo. She will sometimes give people a card that says the dog is working and provides some education to people, while taking their attention off Andiamo.
“I hate to be rude,” Dawn said, “I hate telling kids no. If he doesn’t have the harness on, then yeah, you can go ahead and pet him, but not while he’s in this mode. He’s in uniform.”
Whitney & Lexi
Although Lexi can sometimes be lazy and not want to work, Whitney said when Lexi is on duty, she has learned to stay focused on her job. She said many people don’t understand and get excited about seeing her dog in public and they can be distracting. Fake service animals also pose a problem. Lexi is trained to ignore other animals, but sometimes people will bring untrained animals into public spaces like Walmart, and those dogs will attack her.
“She goes behind me and I get myself between her and that dog so that she doesn’t get hurt,” Whitney said.
Whitney is studying strategic communication at Hardin Simmons University and is interested in further studies in law and music. She said she’s passionate about laws regarding service animals.
“Service dogs take years and years of training,” Whitney said. “People buy fake certificates online that say they make your dog a service dog, when in fact, the only thing that makes your dog a service dog is the training and that it’s task-trained to mitigate it’s handlers disability.”
Emma & Zoe
Zoe works with Emma whenever she’s in public places like the movies or dance recitals, but she isn’t trained yet to go to school with Emma, Ashley said. She doesn’t know what rules the school has, but the school has allowed Zoe to be on campus if Emma has a meltdown during school hours.
“She’ll shutdown and become nonverbal,” Ashley said. “We can bring Zoe over to her and she pets her and just the fur and the softness and everything it helps sort of calm her.”
In those situations, Zoe is “on-call” and one of Emma’s parents will bring Zoe to the school to help Emma calm down. Ashley said Emma understands that when Zoe has her vest or bandana on, she’s working. The other children at school also understand that Zoe is working.
The Americans With Disabilities Act permits students to use service animals at school if the student’s individual education plan deems the animal necessary for the student to receive an education. In Emma’s situation, Zoe is not needed at all hours, but only if she has a meltdown.
Clay said that Charlotte fully retired at 10-years-old, when Lola was fully trained, but she didn’t want to stop working. Clay said she would still try to follow him when he left for work, but in the months before she died in August of 2018, she got to enjoy life as a pet.
Lola also gets to enjoy playing when she’s not working.
“When the vest comes off, she’s crazy,” Clay said. “She’ll jump when she’s off-duty, she’ll try and steal things out of your hand.”
Dawn & Andiamo
Andiamo is a little more stately than the other animals in our story, but his handler, Dawn, said he likes to have fun when he’s not on duty. A true hunting dog, Andiamo went to hunting camp and earned the title of “junior hunting dog.”
“It’s bred into him, so you might as well point it in the right direction,” Dawn said. “He’s a bird-finder, quail, chucker, pheasant. They point, they flesh, and they retrieve in water,” she said, referring to several hunting terms.
Whitney & Lexi
Since Whitney Bosch plays guitar, bass, violin and sings, her service dog also acts as her practice buddy. Lexi has gone with Whitney to perform at coffee shops and local music venues both in Austin and in Abilene.
“She’s very goofy,” Whitney said. “She’s very loving and she loves belly rubs.”
Whitney says service dogs get just as much love and attention as other dogs.
“They still have time to be dogs,” Whitney said. “They’re probably even more spoiled than most pets.”
Emma & Zoe
Ashley McDaniel said Zoe is a family pet as well as a service animal. Emma’s older sister Summer said Zoe is “part of the family now.”
Emma’s nickname for Zoe is “Zo Zo” and when asked what her favorite thing to do with Zoe is, Emma said “play!”
“They love to play on the floor and wrestle with each other,” Ashley said. “She’s very protective of Emma, and she’s starting to get more protective over the rest of us as well.”
Ashley, Emma’s father, and her older sister all learned how to handle Zoe when the family is out in public. But at the end of the day, Zoe is bonded most to Emma, sleeping with her at night and playing with her in the evenings.