With Autism Anchoring Dogs, a Reno family finds comfort in knowing son with autism is safe
For the first time in seven years the Earl family went out to eat.
And instead of the death grip Debbie Earl usually has on her son Ethan’s wrist, she was able to almost relax when they sat as a family at burger chain Red Robin last week.
She wasn’t worried that Ethan, 15, would break free from her and run into traffic.
She wasn’t terrified to go out as a family, for fear that Ethan, who is in a special education program at Billinghurst Middle School, would run off and not be found.
She thanks Mack, a 120-pound Newfoundland that is now anchored to her son.
||Autism Anchor Dogs Trainer Stephen Meck on right with Kevin Earl and his son Ethan. THe three trained with service dog Mack in downtown Reno on Nov. 25. . (Photo: Siobhan McAndrew/RGJ)
The large-breed 2-year-old dog is from Autism Anchoring Dogs, a nonprofit based in Oregon. The nonprofit matches dogs to children with disabilities who are prone to running away.
That describes Ethan, who is nonverbal and unaware of the dangers of running into traffic and hiding.
“When he was 8 he ran from me at Legoland,” said Debbie Earl, who is a special education teacher for the Washoe County School District.
“It was the most terrifying hour of my life,” she said.
Ethan has autism and Neurofibromatosis Type 1, a genetic disorder that causes intellectual disabilities. He also has a rare chromosomal abnormality that causes delays as well as benign tumors on his brain that have to be monitored.
“I’m just looking forward to the normal stuff, like going to a football game or as a family to watch my daughter’s volleyball game,” Earl said.
Autism Anchoring Dogs has matched 15 families with dogs
Autism Anchoring Dogs was started by Kirsten Becker. Becker’s son Sam, who had autism, ran from his father when they were on a hike in 2006 at Crater Lake National Park in Oregon.
Sam, who was 8, was never found.
“This gave me a purpose again,” said Becker, who founded the nonprofit in 2010.
“I wish I could save every child,” Becker said.
||The Earl family walks with Mack, a service dog from Autism Anchoring Dogs. In front, Debbie Earl and Ethan, her 15-year-old son. (Photo: Provided to the RGJ)|
Statistics that show nearly half of all children with autism will run away or go missing. Some are later found dead, most from drowning, she said.
She said raining a service dog for a family is expensive but far less than the alternative of losing a child or the cost for search and rescue.
A service dog like Mack will cost a family $25,000 up front. That includes 80 hours of training with the family in their hometown. Families also will have the cost of care and food for a large-breed dog.
The nonprofit works with breeders to find the dog and then spends months training the dog to work with children like Ethan.
The Earl family is the 15th family Becker has worked with, but she has a list of families trying to raise the money.
The Earl family spent the last six months fundraising for the dog. The last $13,000 came from an anonymous donor.
And for the last two weeks, the Earl family trained with Becker and Stephen Meck, the head trainer of the nonprofit.
Becker and Meck came to Reno and worked with the family including eating with the family on Thanksgiving.
“We come to the family so we can be in their environment,” Becker said.
In some cases, Autism Anchoring Dogs will work with a school district to train the dog for a classroom. In Ethan’s case, the dog won’t go to school with him.
“I’m confident in where he is at school and with the supports he has there,” Earl said. Her son will attend McQueen High School next year.
But the family has to learned to navigate almost every other part of their daily lives with Mack.
||Debbie Earl and her son Ethan train with Mack, a service animal through Autism Anchoring Dogs. (Photo: Provided to the RGJ)|
The dog is trained using a harness system attached to Ethan.
Mack has been trained to provide a counter balance for Ethan. Dogs, like Mack, will brace against being pulled by a child.
Becker said there are other benefits.
The dogs provide comfort to children with disabilities.
“It also helps families with the isolation they feel from social judgement when they go out,” Becker said of people who may at first wrongly judge the behavior of a child with a disability.
“With a service dog, people are more able to understand and may start a conversation asking about the dog.”
For more information on Autism Anchoring Dogs go to www.autismanchoringdogs.org/