Service Dogs May Help Autistic Children

One mother saw a big difference in her son when he got an assistance dog.

ByABC News via logo
April 1, 2008, 7:47 AM

April 1, 2008 — -- On Matthew Plunk's third birthday, his parents, Jeff and Jennifer, received some life-changing news: Their son had autism.

The diagnosis came as no surprise to the Plunks, who had long struggled to contain their son's emotional outbursts and antisocial behaviors.

"He had a lot of fears," said Jennifer. "Just a truck going by would make him want to climb up you."

After years of trying different therapies and experimental diets for Matthew, the Plunks noticed he had made significant progress but still suffered from intense anxiety and difficulty interacting with strangers.

"The biggest thing I was looking for [was] a calmness for Matthew," said Jennifer. "His mind is just going 90 miles an hour. It's like his foot is always on the gas pedal."

So when Matthew was 6, Jennifer went online in search of something else she hoped could help him -- a dog. She had heard about service dogs specially trained to work with children with autism so she researched a program that would help her find a canine companion for Matthew.

"I really believed in the calming impact that a dog can have," said Jennifer.

Her research led her to 4 Paws for Ability, one of several organizations that trains and places dogs to work specifically with autistic children, helping them to become calmer, more social and more comfortable in the world.

As part of their application to the training program, the Plunks submitted hours of home video to demonstrate the problems that Matthew was having, as well as lengthy descriptions of their family's habits and challenges.

Once accepted into the program, they were then required to raise the $12,000 necessary to train the dog, which they did through the generosity of friends, family and their community.

With the money raised, the Plunks headed to the 4 Paws center for a two-week training course in which they were introduced to Matthew's new service dog, Ajax, a Great Pyrenees-boxer mix.

"It was amazing," said Jennifer, describing their first day at the center. Matthew, who had always struggled with forming new bonds with strangers, recognized a picture of Ajax and immediately ran to him.

4 Paws for Ability