Lovable pooch brings smiles to child’s face, comfort to his family

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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.

So much so that Leo 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 wander away from his family.

And talks to Halo. And hugs her frequently, instead of clinging so 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 autism, 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 life-saver. And therein lies a story.


Halo, an autism assistance service dog from 4 Paws For Ability, has improved the quality of life for Leo Bernert, 4, and his family. BILL ROTH / Anchorage Daily News
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 (named after Peggy’s dad, the late Alaska pioneer and building contractor Leo Walsh) 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 — Peggy was on the brink of dialling 911 — 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 (specifically requesting an autism-assistant dog with the special capability of scent-tracking Leo), 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.”


Relaxing Monday afternoon in the family’s new residence overlooking a bluff in South Anchorage — where the Bernerts moved a year ago to be closer to Leo’s multiple therapy sessions in town — Peggy motioned to her son, tangled with his dog on the floor.

Leo was giggling.

“This is what she does for him,” Peggy said. “She makes him happy.”

That’s because Halo fulfills some of Leo’s needs. Types of autism can vary, Peggy said, but lots of autistic children — Leo included — strongly crave something that therapists call “deep pressure.”

“When he was a baby, I would hold him for hours,” she said. “He would just sit with me as long as I would let him. And just hug on me and put his head on me. He just needs to know where he is in space. Now Halo provides that for him too.”

But the caressing and rough-housing that Halo has been trained to endure with so much patience and apparent good humor might be one of her simpler skills. She’s also learned to accompany Leo into public settings and sit silent and still, without budging an inch.

For such outings Leo dons what appears to be a fisherman’s vest, and Halo wears her “on duty” harness. Then Peggy connects a 4-foot-long nylon strap between the harness and the vest, snaps a leash on the dog — and off the three of them go.

Thanks to the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, “certified service dogs” like Halo are permitted to enter virtually any public building. So Peggy and Leo and Halo can venture into shopping malls or large warehouse stores like Costco without fear of losing each other.

Halo also accompanies Leo to some of his therapy sessions. (In addition to preschool and visits by a teen caregiver, he attends weekly sessions of speech therapy, occupational therapy and aqua therapy in a pool.) And now, Peggy says, with his dog along, Leo doesn’t feel such a dire need for his mom to always be present. Now she can remain in the waiting room, and Leo — with Halo at his side — focuses more on the therapist.

“And it’s enabling him to do more of his therapy.”


But none of that was why David and Peggy initially decided to get Halo. They wanted a dog that could find their son in an emergency. And that’s what Halo was specially trained to do.

4 Paws dogs learn specific skill sets, depending on each family’s needs. Some are “seizure assistance dogs” capable of detecting the signs and scent of imminent epileptic seizures before anyone else, says founder Karen Shirk. Others are “mobility assistance dogs” that know how to open doors and turn on lights.

But the highest demand — “Our No. 1 requested dogs,” Shirk says — are those designed to help autistic children. About four out of every five dogs are animals that have been recovered from local shelters. But only about 2 percent of the pound dogs are suitable for tracking.

“It has to do with their heart, and obviously their nose — but also their will to keep on doing it,” says Peggy, who underwent two weeks of training in Ohio as Halo’s designated handler.

During those sessions, she used Halo to track down Leo both indoors and out — through crowded shopping malls filled with hundreds of other scents and across a mile or more of open fields.

For her own part, Halo managed to commit to memory Leo’s special scent. Now she doesn’t even need a clothing cue. Peggy simply attaches her tracking collar and the ritual begins.

“First you get her excited. You say, ‘You ready? You ready? You ready? …’ And then I snap the leash on and I say ‘Track!’ and she’s off.”

Since the Bernerts returned from Ohio last August, Halo has managed to sniff down Leo twice. Once was by design, Peggy says. But the second incident wasn’t planned.

Attending a party at the very large home of a friend one night, Leo suddenly turned up missing.

“After looking, looking, looking, I just hooked Halo up and off we went,” Peggy says. “She just took me directly to him — upstairs two flights and in a back bedroom. She found him immediately.”

It was like the Girdwood incident all over again, but this time without the panic or the neighborhood-wide alert.

That was exciting and reassuring, Peggy says. But she also values the quieter moments, when Leo and Halo finally tire of wrestling on the floor and simply collapse in a bundle together.

One night they even reversed roles — as Leo tracked down Halo.

Peggy had gone downstairs for something and was surprised to find that her son had slipped out of bed and joined his dog in her basket.

“And he was curled up, and she was curled up, and they were both sound asleep,” Peggy said. “It was just pretty neat.”
For more information on autism assistance dogs and autism in general, go to National Autism Association: www.nationalautismassociation.org Autism Society of Alaska: by toll-free phone: 800-3-AUTISM4 Paws for Ability:


Source: Anchorage Daily News (adn.com)

One Response to “Lovable pooch brings smiles to child’s face, comfort to his family”

  1. husky Says:

    A very nice real story.

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