For the autistic, service dogs offer solace

Chris Nash always keeps one eye on his oldest son. "He loves swinging. He's a monkey," said Nash, watching Brendan play on the family's jungle gym. Brendan spends hours playing on the equipment. “He’s got the hands of a 50-year-old labourer."

Chris Nash always keeps one eye on his oldest son.

“He loves swinging. He’s a monkey,” said Nash, watching Brendan play on the family’s jungle gym.

Brendan spends hours playing on the equipment. “He’s got the hands of a 50-year-old labourer. He’s just full of callouses. He just swings all day.”

But there are some restrictions on his play. He needs to watch out for his dog, Roscoe.

“Don’t jump on the dog, Brendan, OK?” Nash reminds his seven-year-old. Brendan keeps playing, the black Labrador below.

Brendan isn’t at a jungle gym in a playground. He’s swinging from a bar in his family’s home. This does more than give him a safe place to burn off energy. It also keeps him stimulated.

Brendan may be a little monkey, but living with him can be like riding a roller-coaster, said Nash.

When Brendan was three, he was diagnosed with autism. His parents noticed their son didn’t always make eye contact, his speech was delayed and he would wiggle his fingers in self-stimulation. Transitions or slight changes in schedules would disrupt him. He had to wait for the final drop of water to drain before leaving the bathtub.

And he would bolt. Brendan doesn’t always have the best spatial awareness. At the Canada Games Centre, at the grocery store, he would often take off running. That’s why the Nashes have Roscoe, who is an autism service dog from the Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides. He came to live with the family two years ago.

And he’s changed the family’s life.

Autism service dogs provide safety and companionship for children aged between three and 18 who have autism. Roscoe wears a maroon harness. There are two leashes attached to it. His father will hold one, and Brendan wears another around his wrist. This keeps the younger Nash from running away. When Brendan is older, he’ll be able to walk Roscoe on his own, said Nash.

Roscoe helps relieve Brendan’s anxiety when the family’s out in public by giving him something to focus on. Before, eating at a restaurant could be a challenge for the family; they were never sure what would happen, said Nash.

Now, with Roscoe lying at Brendan’s feet, eating out becomes less stressful. And so is life at home. Brendan’s sleep schedule is erratic, at best. Roscoe sleeps at the foot of his bed to keep Brendan calm. Since Roscoe’s come, his sleep schedule has become more regular.

Brendan’s come a long way in the last few years, said Nash.

So has the dog – literally. He’s the first autism service dog in the North.

Roscoe was trained at the foundation’s national headquarters in Oakville, Ont. The national charity trains dogs to help people who are blind or visually impaired or deaf or hard of hearing. The charity also trains dogs for people who have various illnesses or disabilities. Some dogs can detect if their diabetic owner is about to go into shock, or can alert people when an epileptic owner has a seizure. It costs about $20,000 to raise and train each dog. The foundation provides the dogs for free to the owners, although they have to pay for food and veterinary costs once they bring them home. The charity receives no government funding.

Brendan’s autism prompted his father to investigate getting a dog for his son. Like many people with autism, Brendan would become fascinated with specific items. Right now, he loves Smarties and licence plates. But at one time, he was obsessed with dogs. Nash decided to find more information. He applied for the program in the summer of 2010.

The next spring, one of the foundation’s trainers came up to visit the family. And in June 2011, Nash travelled to Ontario to spend a week with Roscoe, learning commands and how to care for the dog. The two travelled to different places in the community and built trust. Then, they flew up to Whitehorse and Roscoe began working with Brendan.

Nash wants others to understand how important service dogs are. Each year, the Lions Foundation of Dog Guides hosts the Purina Walk for Dog Guides. The event raises money so the charity can keep providing the dogs for free. This is the second year Nash has organized the walk for Whitehorse. It will take place this Sunday at 2 p.m. Participants will meet at Rotary Park and walk the Millennium Trail. Owners are welcome to bring their dogs.

And Brendan’s hoping that some of his friends will come out for the walk, too.

Roscoe doesn’t go to school with Brendan because his parents decided that wasn’t necessary. He has an educational assistant, and does fairly well. They want Brendan to be independent, said Nash. But sometimes things can be lonely.

“He doesn’t have a huge group of friends,” said Nash, when asked what the greatest thing Roscoe provides is. “But he knows when he comes home, he’s got a best friend.”

Or, as Brendan put it, “I love him,” he said.

Contact Meagan Gillmore at