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An autistic child's best friend Add to ...

Hayden Kaack has a dangerous attraction to water. He will dart toward sprinklers on neighbours' lawns, oblivious to oncoming traffic. During a school trip, he suddenly jumped into Lake Ontario.

Hayden's tendency to bolt and his lack of awareness of potential risks are characteristic of autism, the condition that afflicts the 13-year-old from Kingston, Ont.

Naturally, his rash behaviour is a constant source of worry for his mother, Heidi Penning.

But Ms. Penning's fears have eased considerably since the arrival of Printer, a yellow Labrador trained as a companion for autistic children.

In public, Hayden is attached to his new best friend with a special leash; if the boy tries to bolt, the dog sits, stopping him in his tracks.

"My son has very quickly figured out that there's no point and now he rarely tries to bolt," Ms. Penning said. "The dog is important for his safety."

Autism is a developmental disability that is characterized by difficulties with social interactions and communication, and manifests in specific behavioural patterns. There is no definitive medical test for autism and no cure. As many as one in every 165 children may be affected by an autism spectrum disorder.

National Service Dogs has been pairing specially trained dogs with families of children with autism since 1996.

The Ontario-based non-profit group has placed 140 service dogs across Canada. Each dog is bred, raised and trained for the job - a process costing $18,000, but which is free for families. (The bill is absorbed by NSD.)

Printer has helped the entire family in unexpected ways, explains Ms. Penning, who wasn't sure they would be able to take on the added responsibility.

"It's forced us to slow down," she says of having to walk and care for the dog.

"Printer has become an ambassador of autism," she says, since the dog's presence invites strangers' friendly questions instead of the usual disapproving looks.

"Some people don't understand autism and now Printer provides the opportunity to educate."

Not only does Printer keep Hayden safe and break down barriers, he also encourages bonding.

"When you have autism it's very difficult to make friends; they just don't know how to interact," Ms. Penning says of her son Hayden, who can't speak. "Printer is his first real experience with friendship."

Brodie Morin, now 16, was diagnosed with autism at age 3 and a service dog has been by his side ever since.

Within months of receiving Shade, a black Labrador, 13 years ago, Brodie began sleeping better and his self-destructive behaviours were redirected into constructive activities such as petting the dog, says his mother, Maureen Butler-Morin.

"The service dog is like having another set of hands holding on to the child and keeping the child calm," she said. "The dog is the tool we use. Once Brodie was calm we could teach him [everyday skills]"

Their current service dog, Shadow, goes to school with Brodie every day, and helps relieve the isolation typically experienced by kids with autism.

The dogs' presence can curb anxiety, induce a sense of calm and provide companionship for autistic children, according to Zoë Quinn-Phillips of Positive Assistance and Companion Canines for Kids, a new program based in Montreal.

"The dogs work in a triad with parent and child, as a mediator and communicator," Ms. Quinn-Phillips said.

Ms. Butler-Morin and her son Brodie recently spoke at the launch of the PACCK program, which is training white shepherd dogs under the guidance of NSD.

Four Montreal-area families are temporarily welcoming puppies into their homes to act as "puppy raisers" for PACCK until the dogs are old enough to undergo six months of training before being placed with families.

NSD places 25 to 30 dogs with families across Canada every year. With the addition of a new training facility, the organization plans to increase that number to 40 and eventually cut the 2½-year wait time in half.

The programs, which rely on donated funds, are expanding to meet a rising demand for the dogs.

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