Family raising money for service dog to help their child with autism

Service dogs, mostly Golden Retrievers, help with emotional and social needs, communication

lgierer@ledger-enquirer.comJune 9, 2014 

When told by a speech therapist a little more than three years ago that her son, Joseph, had autistic tendencies, Jennifer Orozco cried.

"I was pregnant at the time, and I came home in tears," Orozco said. "I could not believe something like that was wrong with my baby. But that is not the way it is now. I accept my son for the way he is. I am blessed to have him. He is my little angel, and I am going to do everything in my power to help him become the man I know he can be."

Right now, she believes that means getting Joseph a service dog.

She has been in touch with North Star Foundation in Storrs, Conn., a nonprofit organization that provides canine companions for children with autism, in hopes of Joseph receiving one. She is now in the process of raising the money needed to do that.

The Orozco family lives in south Columbus. Christopher and Jennifer, both 29, have been married 10 years. They met as students at Carver High School.

He has worked in construction, but lately has been a stay-at-home dad. "I am needed here," Christopher Orozaco said.

She does maintenance work at the Villages of Benning, a housing community on Fort Benning.

Joseph, 6, has an older sister, Serenity, 8, and a younger one, Alicia, 3.

It was an occupational therapist who first suggested a service dog for Joseph.

"He has a very limited vocabulary, he uses less than five words most of the time," Jennifer Orozco said. "He keeps to himself and doesn't play with many people at all. When he does it's for a very limited time. He doesn't like crowded places.

"The last time our family went out to eat at a sit-down restaurant was almost a year ago because he freaks out in places like that, and we end up leaving because not many people understand what's happening. They see a screaming kid pitching a fit when he is just in sensory overload, and it's just too much for him to handle."

She said that her son is always climbing and jumping off anything. She believes the puppy will be trained to meet all the needs Joseph has, both emotional and social, and also will be trained to help keep Joseph out of harm's way. The dog will help with communication skills.

For a couple of years, the parents searched for a place to get a service dog. Most wanted as much as $25,000, a price way too steep for the Orozcos.

The North Star Foundation was different.

"North Star requires me to come up with a portion of the money for the puppy up front, which is $5,000, before they will start the process of placing a puppy with my son. All donations are tax deductible," she said.

She has set up a website, http://www.gofundme.com/8s5qc, for donations. People may also donate at North Star Foundation's Facebook page.

The cost is $15,000, but North Star's founder and Executive Director Patty Dobbs Gross said the foundation raises money to cover half of that.

The Orozcos have reached out to businesses in the area. Kelly Anderson, office manager at The Tap, said the bar is planning a fundraiser in August featuring bands and games. Money also is being raised to put a fence around the family's backyard. Anderson said The Tap wants to do as much as possible to get Joseph what he needs.

There was something else besides price that made North Star desirable.

"Everyone else required me and my son to travel across the country to train with the dog for up to six weeks at my own expense," she said. "That wasn't going to happen. I could not be out of work for that long. Also, there would be no way that I would be able to get Joseph on an airplane or drive cross-country with him because of the sensory problems he has."

Most organizations place grown dogs with families, she said, but North Star places fully-trained puppies with children, so they'll grow together.

Gross said dogs are social creatures, and there are children with an interest in dogs who can benefit from this therapy. Studies have shown that over time it works.

"The dog is not only better for the child in public but relaxes the child at home, as well. The dog is a great tool," Gross said.

A service dog wears a green vest. All of the puppies receive positive reinforcement training with no forceful negative correction. Gross said there is a reason for giving puppies instead of a grown dog, as is often done with physically-challenged adults.

The philosophy of training the dog and the timetable for placement has to be tailored to the unique needs of the child and move in tandem with the dog's natural development, she said.

In traditional service animal programs, dogs are placed with human partners when the dogs are approximately two years old, and they arrive fully trained. New owners learn handling skills within the space of two or three weeks. At North Star, the person with autism gets a puppy in order to facilitate the strongest bond possible and to insure the dog's training matches the child's needs.

Gross said that the primary emphasis is on appropriate early socialization. The puppy is subjected to experiences that simulate the experience it will have with the child. She said considerable energy goes into teaching the child to interact with the dog in ways that enhance bonding.

Because the quality of the relationship matters more than any other variable, it is essential that early interactions are supervised, more so than might be necessary for an adult with mobility problems, she said.

According to the organization's website, by the age of two years, a dog's temperament and abilities are well established. If the dog has not had exposure during the early months to the child in question or the specific challenges they present -- if it had no experience in how to interpret autistic behaviors -- the dog may react unpredictably.

Families are also asked to enroll in a training class that emphasizes positive reinforcement techniques.

Gross said that 85 percent of the dogs used are Golden Retrievers, a breed known for its social nature.

"I just know this is going to be good for my boy," the mother said.

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