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Dog Training Classes Help Autistic Teens Connect

Newark Star Ledger
UPPER SADDLE RIVER, N.J. — Miami, a 3-year-old pug, sits in front of a small bar, her big saucer eyes showing just a touch of performance anxiety.

"Jump," commands her owner, Veronica Alizo, 17. After a slight hesitation, over goes Miami, to the delight of her owner.

It's an accomplishment not only for the dog, but for the teenager. Veronica is part of a class of adolescents with autism, who are taught by Kathy Santo, a professional dog trainer. The students, all teenagers with a diagnosis on the autism spectrum, are learning how to control their dogs, in turn getting a sense of confidence and strengthening the bonds of affection with their pets.

Santo hopes to replicate the program throughout the country.

Relating to a pet is especially therapeutic for kids with autism, whose social skills and ability to relate to others are compromised.

As the number of children with autism rises — estimated at one in 150 in the United States — programs like Santo's are taking off. They include programs that help children with pets learn to communicate better, as well as more intense efforts such as training service dogs for children with autism.

These highly trained service dogs keep kids from wandering from home, help them focus better in school, and interrupt behaviors including self-stimulation, or "stimming," such as flapping arms or spinning.

"This is an idea whose time has come," said Patty Dobbs Gross, author of a book about children and assistance dogs and the founder of North Star Foundation in Storrs, Conn., which trains dogs for children with autism.

The puppies Gross breeds and trains can cost a family up to $22,000, including breeding, training, shipping the dogs to the families and training the autistic child and his family. Santo's program focuses on the pets the kids already have and teaches the students to train their dogs to follow basic commands, such as "sit" and "stay," as well as performing obedience tasks. It costs approximately $150 for six sessions, which are taught at her home training facility.

"It's really touching. At the beginning, some kids didn't know how to cheer their dog on, and at the end of class they were running the dogs through a whole course. Their relations with the dogs have improved," Santo said.

At a recent reunion of her first class — former students from the Forum School in Waldwick, N.J. — Veronica and her classmates took their dogs through their paces.

Stormy, an 11-year-old border collie owned by Gower Nibley, 16, of Montclair, N.J., barked excitedly as he awaited his turn on the teeter, a seesaw-like apparatus the dog walks up and then down.

Gower's mother, Marybeth Nibley, said having a dog has helped Gower's social skills.

"It encourages children to speak up, be assertive," she said. Stormy serves as a magnet for people, who approach Gower and start talking when he's out walking the dog, she added.

Myriam Alizo, the mother of Veronica and Victoria, 13, said the family's two pugs are her daughters' best friends. "They are very emotionally connected to them," she said.

Santo, who writes the "Ask the Dog Shrink" column for House Beautiful magazine and a training and behavior column for an American Kennel Club publication, said she had to learn to work with the teens' shorter attention spans and desire for challenges.

Santo started her career training dogs for obedience competitions. After winning a slew of trophies, she said, "that began to feel hollow." She began volunteering at a local shelter in Florida, where she was living, helping to judge the temperament of a dog to make an appropriate match.

When she returned to New Jersey, she began teaching obedience classes to the general public. One of her clients was Linda Walder Fiddle, who founded the Daniel Jordan Fiddle Foundation in honor of her son, who was autistic and died at the age of 10.

"I asked her if she'd ever thought of teaching children with autism," said Fiddle, whose foundation raises money to fund programs for adolescents and adults with autism, an underserved population. The foundation provided a grant for this first group of teens to take the class.

Now Santo and Fiddle are determined to replicate it wherever they can.

Besides teaching classes, Santo said she would like to help families with autistic children choose an appropriate dog, as well as teaching other dog trainers how to work with this population.

"They teach me as much as I teach them," she said of the kids.

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For more information about Santo's program, e-mail info(at)pawsfour.org. For information on assistance dogs or to obtain a copy of Dobbs' book, "The Golden Bridge: A Guide to Assistance Dogs for Children Challenged by Autism or Other Developmental Disabilities," visit NorthStarDogs.com. See the Daniel Jordan Fiddle Foundation's Web site for information on its programs for adolescents and adults.

(Peggy O'Crowley is a staff writer for The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J. She can be contacted at pocrowley(at)starledger.com.)