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News / Health / Clark County Health

Dog trains to be autistic boy’s ‘anchor’

St. Bernard will help keep Vancouver 9-year-old safe in public places, calm him

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian Health Reporter
Published: October 5, 2015, 6:01am
7 Photos
Kirsten Becker, executive director of Autism Anchoring Dogs, center, attaches a tether connecting Saint Bernard Andy to 9-year-old Deklan Montes, who has autism, in the Montes family&#039;s  Vancouver home.
Kirsten Becker, executive director of Autism Anchoring Dogs, center, attaches a tether connecting Saint Bernard Andy to 9-year-old Deklan Montes, who has autism, in the Montes family's Vancouver home. (Natalie Behring/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Deklan Montes is an intelligent 9 year old. He’s above-average compared to other kids his age, according to his mother.

But Deklan, who has autism, struggles behaviorally and socially. In that area, he’s more like a 3-year-old.

Of particular concern for Deklan’s parents, Mark and Rochelle Montes, is Deklan’s inability to fight his impulses. If Deklan sees something he wants, he’ll run toward it. That lack of impulse control has led to many close calls. He has been burned by a barbecue, raced through parking lots and was nearly struck by a riding lawn mower.

“There’s no concept of safety,” Rochelle said. “As he’s getting older and faster, I need him safe. I need him alive.”

On the Web

To donate to or learn more about the Montes family, visit Deklan’s Autism Anchoring Dog GoFundMe site: www.gofundme.com/ra2dddk

Autism Anchoring Dogs: www.autismanchoringdogs.org

The Monteses say they think they’ve found something to help keep their son safe: An 18-month-old, 130-pound Saint Bernard named Andy.

Andy is undergoing training to become an autism service dog. More specifically, Andy will serve as an anchor to counter Deklan’s weight when he tries to dart away from his parents, as well as help Deklan to regain his composure during or after a meltdown and provide a social bridge between Deklan and his peers.

Andy is being trained at Portland-based Autism Anchorning Dogs — an Oregon nonprofit corporation working toward attaining federal nonprofit status — and will be ready to join the family later this year. In the meantime, the family is trying to raise the $15,000 needed to purchase the dog.

“This is a very expensive cost for us,” Rochelle said. But “$15,000 isn’t going to stop us from finding something that could help him.”

Giant breeds

The Montes family first learned about Autism Anchoring Dogs during an Easter egg hunt for special needs kids. Kirsten Becker, executive director of the organization, had a booth set up at the event. Deklan spotted the dogs and ran right to them.

“I knew that was what we needed,” Rochelle said.

Autism Anchoring Dogs isn’t the first organization to train dogs to anchor children; Becker modeled the organization after another group. But one criticism of using anchoring dogs has been the risk of the dog being pulled off of its feet and hurt.

Becker’s solution was to use three giant-breed dogs: Saint Bernards, Newfoundlands and Leonbergers. The dogs have a gentle nature and natural affinity for children, and they’re big enough to stay stable and secure when countering a running child, Becker said.

Fully trained dogs have 200 hours of public access training — as well as the anchor training, basic house-training and other skills — which takes six to eight months to complete.

When used for anchoring, the dog is on a leash held by a handler, most often the child’s parent or guardian. The dog also wears a harness with a 4-foot bungee tether connected to the child via a belt.

If the child tries to dart off or pulls the dog in a direction other than the way they’re walking, the dog will immediately turn toward the child and sit or lie down.

“It keeps them out of traffic,” Becker said. “It keeps them out of water.”

“These are lifesaving dogs,” she added.

Becker’s own tragedy is what led her to become a certified animal trainer and launch Autism Anchoring Dogs. In 2006, Becker’s autistic 8-year-old son disappeared while visiting Crater Lake National Park in Oregon with his father. The boy ran off, and despite hundreds of hours and years of searching, they’ve never found him.

“She’s made it her mission that this won’t happen to another family,” Rochelle said of Becker. “It came from an absolutely heartbreaking, genuine place, but something amazing and beautiful came from it.”

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Soothing influence

In addition to Deklan’s inclination to run, he also experiences meltdowns and tantrums that can lead to self-harm. Rochelle and Mark say they hope Andy will be able to help soothe Deklan in those situations.

The dogs are trained with commands to help do just that.

With a tap on the dog’s shoulder, it will lean into the handler or child, providing a soothing presence in stressful situations. The dogs also are trained to rest their heads in the child’s lap if the child needs a few minutes to calm down after an outburst or to prevent an outburst from happening.

In addition to helping to calm Deklan, Rochelle and Mark say they hope Andy can bridge the social gaps between Deklan and his peers.

“Kids at day care don’t understand him,” Mark said.

When Mark arrives to pick up Deklan, other kids will tell him Deklan was mean to them. Mark usually apologizes to the child and explains that Deklan doesn’t mean to hurt anyone’s feelings.

They say they hope Deklan will be able to connect with his classmates over the dog. Deklan will be able to explain his dog’s name, how much he weighs and what he does for Deklan. That, Rochelle said, should give Deklan much needed social interaction.

“Often, Deklan isn’t very approachable,” Rochelle said. “He’s different. He scares them.”

Rochelle also said she hopes Andy’s presence will be a visual sign to other people that Deklan has a disability. She can’t count how many times Deklan has had an outburst in public, and she has been ridiculed, told to control her child or heard Deklan called a “brat.”

“He might not look like he has a disability, but you have no idea what’s going on here,” Rochelle said. “It’s an everyday struggle.”

Fundraising drive

Rochelle and Mark both work — Mark is in the U.S. Army — but $15,000 is still a large expense for the family, so they’ve planned a variety of fundraisers to help offset the cost.

They created a GoFundMe page — www.gofundme.com/ra2dddk — and a high school drama team has named Deklan their benefactor and will raise money for the boy throughout the school year. The Montes family also is selling a coloring book drawn by a family friend and Christmas cards created by Deklan.

So far, they family has raised nearly $3,500. Once they reach their fundraising goal, the Montes family plans to continue the efforts to raise money for Autism Anchoring Dogs.

In the meantime, Rochelle and Mark say they are looking forward to enjoying family activities, such as hiking, with a new level of safety.

“It’s not going to be a magic wand,” Rochelle said, “but it’s going to be a help.”

Columbian Health Reporter