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Dogs help decrease outbursts and promote expressive speech

It's more than puppy love for the volunteers at Autism Service Dogs of America
by: Jon House, Lake Oswego
resident Pris Taylor,left, founder of Autism Service Dogs of America, carries a cage of yellow labrador puppies into Waluga Junior High School with the help of school counselor Marcy Watts. The puppies, which came from a breeder in Sherwood, will eventually be trained as companions to kids with autism.

harlie the pup has yet to get his act together.

He tends to wander and explore and constantly use his powerful sense of smell. Meanwhile, his powers of concentration are far from being highly developed. Especially when he is in a really interesting place like Washington Square.

But Charlie is destined for better things, because he already wears a vest that says: Autism Service Dogs of America.

That means that in about a year and a half, Charlie will be making a tremendous difference in the life of an autistic child and also that child's family.

'For kids with autism, these dogs mean so much,' said Pris Taylor of Lake Oswego, who started the ASDA six years ago. 'Kids with autism have trouble socializing, controlling their muscles and their emotions, and knowing they are different.

'A service dog can help them in all of these areas.'

Some autistic kids are 'runners,' children who are 4 to 6 years old and extremely difficult to take out in public because of their tendency to simply run away. There is also a big problem with 'meltdowns.' But Taylor has seen a child with an Autism Service Dog be able to stay out in public for three hours at a time.

'A dog decreases outbursts and promotes expressive speech,' Taylor said. 'The child talks to the dog all the time.'

A good dog candidate for Autism Service Dogs of America is not hard to find. Taylor is already lining up eight Labrador puppies for her class of 2008. But these puppies will need trainers and host families.

That is why Taylor is so grateful to young folks like Kelly Sosa and Megan Worthington, both 13 years old and students at Waluga Junior High School.

Sosa only had to be asked by one of Taylor's Lake Oswego neighbors if she wanted to join the ASDA, and she also easily convinced her pal Worthington to join, too.

'We're dog freaks,' Sosa explained.

'Kelly asked me and I agreed, because I like dogs,' Worthington said. 'I also like field trips to the beach.'

It was Sosa who had the job of bringing Charlie to Washington Square. It was not an easy task getting the curious pup to go in the right direction, and sometimes she simply had to pick up Charlie and carry him.

Still, for Sosa, training Charlie is a labor of love. It's also fun.

'I couldn't bring my dog here,' Sosa said. 'But I can take Charlie everywhere.'

Although a long-time dog lover, Sosa had never previously done such intense training with a canine, and she has been getting an education right along with Charlie and the other dogs she has trained for the ASDA over the past year.

'I've learned how to have patience,' Sosa said. 'I really didn't have much before. I'm a lot calmer now. Training dogs has made me more tolerant.'

Taylor said, 'We've been in existence since 2001 and using kids for the past two years. Utilizing kids like Kelly and Megan and other community members really decreases our program costs.'

After being a lawyer for 20 years, Taylor decided to try a career in providing service dogs, and she discovered something very unique: There were no service dog programs for autistic children.

'We're the first business in America to do this exclusively,' Taylor said.

Certainly such a new venture has its challenges, but Taylor is truly meeting a need. She has a waiting list of families seeking service dogs for an autistic child.

'We're filling a need,' Taylor said. 'We would certainly like to place more dogs.'

The fact that the ASDA has a strenuous training and socialization program has made it difficult so far to place dogs in huge numbers.

'Over two years we get a dog ready for all social situations,' Taylor said. 'We need a healthy, nurturing environment for two years, and that is why the puppy raisers are so important. We have them in Lake Oswego, Portland and Hillsboro.'

There is just one problem with dog raisers. They tend to fall in love with the dog.

'The most common refrain I hear is, 'I could never give up a dog,'' Taylor said. 'But we assure them they will get another puppy and have a companion for their pet. It's a matter of focusing on the positive part. They will be helping a family tremendously.'

As for the trainers, Taylor said, 'We could not operate a business this size without the young adult volunteers we have. We couldn't do half of what we do.

'I think Kelly and Megan have a good time. They learn responsibility, time management and have fun, too.'

Certainly, one of the biggest payoffs for ASDA volunteers is gratitude. The organization's Web site has collected testimonials of families who have received an ASDA dog.

They tell of fewer meltdowns, fewer tantrums and having a child sit down for the first time ever at a concert. One child became so attached to a dog that they even take baths together.

As one mother movingly put it, 'To actually see her miracles is beyond words to express.'

That means that Charlie really has something to look forward to. He won't always be a clumsy puppy tripping over his own paws. Charlie will be a four-legged miracle worker.

To volunteer or find out more about Autism Service Dogs of American, go to the organization's Web site www.autismservicedogsofamerica.com or else call Taylor at 503-314-6913.

Taylor plans something special in the future for her volunteers.

'We would like to have a camp for 10 to 15 year olds next summer, hopefully in the Lake Oswego area,' she said. 'We'll have dog training, fun activities and grooming. They also can bring their own dog and train it.'