Service dog helps autistic boy in Anchorage

Specially trained, Halo helps keep child from wandering away

Posted: Monday, October 29, 2007

ANCHORAGE - A miracle dog lives in Anchorage. Her name is Halo. She hasn't caught any criminals or won a sled dog race but a 4-year-old Oceanview boy named Leo really likes her.

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So much so that the boy with autism is content to go to preschool each morning now (instead of crying or having a tantrum), if he gets to take his dog.

And he calmly stands next to Halo and her handler in a busy grocery store, rather than wandering away from his family.

And he talks to Halo. And hugs her frequently, instead of clinging desperately to his mom.

Just that much is a kind of miracle, since Leo - the youngest of David and Peggy Bernert's four children - was born with the puzzling brain disorder that can make it hard for children to do any one of those things.

And Halo, a 1-year-old golden retriever specially trained to be an autism-assistant dog - the first of her kind in Alaska - makes it all possible.

"She's trained in something called 'lap command,' where she'll go sit by my son and lay her head on his lap," says Peggy, 45, a native of Anchorage. "And that cheers him up."

Halo, however, is not just a calming touch, a social anchor, a friend. She's also a potential lifesaver. A year and a half ago, the Bernert family was living in Girdwood, where David worked out of his home as an Alaska sales rep for a national flooring manufacturer and Peggy cared for the children.

Back then, Leo was still a 2-year-old. He'd been officially diagnosed for autism the previous December.

Like many children with autism, Leo has a tendency to wander. And when anyone in the family calls out his name in an effort to find him, he rarely replies. That's made for some anxious moments.

The worst of all came a year ago last spring. It was break-up in Girdwood, and Glacier Creek was running high. The front door was open and Leo was missing.

"He loved to throw rocks in the (roadside) culvert," Peggy says.

She was positive that's where he'd gone. But when she reached the culvert's swiftly flowing water, there was no Leo to be found. Peggy was frantic. Soon all the neighbors joined in the search. They'd been looking for about 20 minutes when her oldest daughter, McKenzie, now 16, called out that she'd found Leo. He'd been sitting in their garage all along, hidden behind a dog kennel.

"So that's when I said: 'Well, a dog would have found him. A dog would have known exactly where he was,' " Peggy says.

The Bernerts already had two dogs, a dachshund named Oliver and a Lab named Mugs. But neither exhibited the necessary skills.

Within a few minutes of finding Leo, Peggy sat down at the family computer and Googled the words "autism" and "dog" - and quickly located the Web site of an Ohio-based organization called "4 Paws for Ability," which specializes in training dogs for autistic children.

What happened next - from the initial phone call to 4 Paws, to the extensive application process, to raising the $12,000 cost of buying the dog, to traveling to the nonprofit's headquarters on the outskirts of Dayton last summer for a two-week dog handler course, to returning to Anchorage in August with Halo in tow - took nearly a year and a half.

And was worth every minute of it, Peggy says: "This dog has changed our lives."



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