Adding a new family member is always a big step, but for one Grand Manan family it will be a community‑sized project, with the added twist that the new family member will be a dog. Marlene and Stephen Zwicker have begun a fundraising effort to obtain a service dog for their daughter Libby, 7, who has autism.
The Zwickers first noticed something "a little off" in her behavior when she was 2 years old. She began hiding in small places, piling things on top of herself and having lengthy meltdowns triggered by tiny changes like the wrong color of a cup. She will disappear into hiding, sometimes quite close to searchers, or wander into the woods behind the family's home. Many high‑functioning autistic children have obsessions; Libby's is frogs. High anxiety because of unexpected changes can create behavioral problems which many people misinterpret as bad parenting because children "look normal."
With a second child now being evaluated for autism, lifestyle changes help the family communicate. For example, because visual learning is easier than verbal explanation, the house is adorned with posters and graphics to help the children understand simple routines and safety precautions.
The Zwickers weren't looking for a dog. Stephen, channel‑surfing last fall, came upon a TV documentary about autism assistance dogs. They were interested but put the idea in the back of their minds for a while. When Libby's pediatrician told them children don't get far into the school system without going on anti‑anxiety medication, they brought up the idea of a dog. He encouraged them to try and has supported their efforts. Marlene says some Canadian organizations will place a service dog for free, but with a two‑ to five‑year wait. They applied to one in Ontario. However, they were troubled by the organization's policy of removing the dog from the family when it reaches retirement age, usually after eight to 10 years. Marlene kept looking for other options and found 4 Paws for Ability online. "I woke up at 1:30 a.m. and woke Stephen up and said, 'We've sent the wrong paperwork.' We can't take the dog away from her after she's loved it that long. I called her pediatrician in the morning and said, "Don't send that paperwork!'" They applied to 4 Paws and were approved within a couple of weeks with a contract on the way.
The organization 4 Paws for Ability was founded in Xenia, Ohio, in 1998, with a mandate to provide service dogs to children and veterans with a wide range of disabilities and illnesses. The 501(c)(3) nonprofit has placed over 650 dogs in the United States and several other countries and claims a 90% success rate. Forty-seven percent of their placements are for autism assistance. Clients are expected to be active participants in the program. The cost for 4 Paws' training is $22,000, and the Zwickers must raise $14,000 of that. All promotional material and plans are approved by 4 Paws, which also offers fundraising suggestions. There is an online support network which allows parents to share their experiences.
After the money has been raised, it takes a year to train a dog. Then the family, as well as helpers and an educational assistant, will spend two weeks at the Ohio facility, learning to work with the dog. Children participate in this training as much as possible. Dogs must be recertified annually. "You have a continual working relationship over the life of the dog," Marlene says. Upon retirement, the dog can stay with the family, which must make provision for its care, such as adding instructions to a will. "They don't want any of their dogs to end up in a shelter."
A service dog provides many benefits for an autistic child. On a tether, it can keep them from wandering away. A growing child who doesn't want to hold mommy's hand anymore becomes the one responsible for holding the dog's leash, and the sense of responsibility extends to caring for the dog. A dog with tracking skills will be able to find a child who wanders away. Dogs interrupt negative behavior by drawing the attention of children who hit themselves or pull their hair out, and will climb into laps to provide reassuring weight. For children whose anxiety is triggered by things like a new educational assistant or an outing, the dog is a constant factor who remains by their side through the changes they experience.
Libby is eager to meet her new pal, although she doesn't quite understand the time frame and frequently asks if she'll get her dog today. She has emptied all the money in her piggy bank, asking, "Is that enough for my dog?" She does recognize help from donors and has been drawing thank you notes.
Marlene says living in an isolated area presents difficulties, from the time and expense of travel for medical appointments to fundraising in a small community. On the plus side, they have a lot of family on the island, supportive educators, who are already examining policies regarding service dogs in school, and the encouragement of close friends who have two autistic children of their own. A youthful team of Libby's babysitters is helping with event planning. "We may be isolated here," Marlene says, "but we'd be isolated as a family on the mainland." She stresses that every little donation adds up. They are hoping to receive their dog in the summer of 2015, giving everyone time to adjust before school begins.
Fundraising will kick-off on Friday, April 4, at 7 p.m. at the school with a concert featuring local singer Bev Joy and an auction of donated items and desserts. Admission is by donation. On the mainland, friends and family plan to sell raffle tickets on lobster and scallops, and the Zwickers are discussing some other ideas with 4 Paws. They may make and sell things at markets to help cover the out‑of‑pocket costs of travel and fencing their yard. "I think it will be well worth it," Marlene says. "They all say it is."
For more information on 4 Paws for Ability, visit <http://4pawsforability.org>. Donations can be made through the website by mentioning Libby Zwicker in the memo line. To donate or volunteer locally for "Libby's BFF With Fur," contact <firstname.lastname@example.org>.