Labrador Retriever Bennie Helps Autistic Boys Find a Better Life
By Janelle Frost - The Sun News
RANDALL HILL/The Sun News
Five-year-old Daniel Clement, who was diagnosed last year with Asperger's syndrome, plays with his new therapy dog Bennie at the Clement family home in July in Myrtle Beach. Daniel and his brother Thomas, who is autistic, are the first children in Horry County to receive a dog through SOS Healthcare and The North Star Foundation.
Five-and-a half-year-old Daniel Clement crouched on the ground, grabbed a rope attached to a ball that the chocolate labrador puppy Bennie had in his mouth. Daniel pulled the rope and ran. The puppy scampered after him.
After Bennie did his business, Daniel said, "Good pottie" to his new friend.
The boy's love for dogs could become the catalyst to help him and his younger brother have a better quality of life.
Daniel and Thomas, 4, have conditions classified as autism spectrum disorders. Autism is a developmental disability that can affect a person's attention span and ability to communicate and interact socially with others. Individuals can display repetitive behaviors, such as rocking, and can have extreme reactions to various sensations, such as sounds. Their thinking abilities can range from high functioning to severely challenged.
The disorder is four times more likely to occur in boys than girls.
More than two years ago, Jim and Monique Clement noticed that Thomas had stopped talking and was flapping his arms like a bird.
"We thought he was deaf," said Jim Clement, a Myrtle Beach firefighter.
Shortly after that, Thomas was diagnosed with autism. About a year later, Daniel, who was having difficulty communicating with others, was identified as having Asperger's, a higher functioning form of the disorder.
"If we didn't have Thomas, we wouldn't have known about Daniel," said Monique Clement, who recalled that Daniel taught himself to read and talk. Reading at a fourth-grade level today, Daniel's first word ever spoken was "purple."
"He used to love 'Baby Einstein' videos," Monique Clement said. One day, he heard and saw the word purple and started saying it, she said.
After following the path of many parents with autistic children who exhaustively look for the best ways to educate and socialize their children, the Clements have placed their faith in a four-legged assistant.
Thomas was placed in speech therapy soon after he was diagnosed. He and Daniel also have been receiving occupational therapy.
But Monique Clement wanted to investigate other ways to help comfort and reach the boys in ways she couldn't.
"As a person and parent who loves animals, I know what the effects were for having an animal for me," Monique Clement said. "Dogs can help and cope on a level we can't understand."
She discovered Thomas' love for dogs after they visited a neighbor. Something seemed to click between boy and animal.
"For some reason, dogs are never aggressive toward him," she said. She decided to search for one that might assist her children in the way guide dogs have helped others with disabilities.
Research is encouraging
Dr. Bill Davis, a local doctor who has become a sort of champion for autistic children, said research shows the dogs can help autistic children with socialization, emotional and educational skills. Labradors and golden retrievers have the best temperament for the work of bonding with such children.
Davis practiced urology along the Grand Strand for 18 years before he became executive director and founder in 1989 of SOS Health Care Inc., a nonprofit group that delivers medical services to the poor in Horry County.
SOS Health Care partnered with Connecticut-based North Star Foundation in 2005 to launch a program in Horry County that pairs assistance dogs with young autistic children.
"Dogs are a creative tool for capturing [children's] attention and then transitioning their focus," Davis said.
Davis began researching autism after he learned his 5-year-old granddaughter, Casey, was diagnosed with the illness, he said.
Casey, who does not have an assistance-trained dog, could not speak at 3 years old and would not make eye contact with others.
Through his personal experience with his granddaughter, Davis said he has gained a deeper understanding of autism and this motivated him to help other families.
He said a survey conducted by SOS Health Care indicated that more than 15 percent of Horry County families with autistic children believe they could benefit from having a trained dog to help with their children.
The Clements were one of nine Horry County families hoping to receive assistant dogs.
Bennie was placed with the Clement family after five months of specialized training.
"The Clement family was chosen first because they have two autistic children," said Davis, who got Bennie in Charlotte, N.C., from dog trainer and breeder Charlie Petrizzo.
Three Horry County families now are going through the process to get an assistant-trained dog.
Davis, and his wife, Elaine Davis, are raising Lila, a 16-month-old golden retriever, and Samantha, a 7-month-old chocolate British labrador to breed puppies that will become assistance-trained dogs.
Since 2000, North Star has placed 85 trained dogs in homes nationwide - mostly in homes with autistic children, including the Carolinas.
North Star breeds, trains and places the dogs with children who have social, emotional and educational challenges.
The nonprofit organization places about 20 dogs a year, said founder Patty Dobbs Gross.
The dogs, who have been found throughout the country, must pass temperament and health tests to be part of the program, Gross said.
She also has started breeding her own line of golden retrievers to have dogs with a temperament suitable to be assistants for children.
One way to achieve a match is to have a puppy around a child during a "meltdown" or when the child is experiencing a temper tantrum, Davis said. The test allows program officials to see if the dog calms the child. If the dog panics with a child or adds to the meltdown, it either will not be a good placement or will have to be trained to stay calm, Davis said.
Families must be involved in the training and continue training after a dog is placed in their home.
Bennie joins the Clements
A Myrtle Beach couple made it possible for the Clements to get Bennie, a 10-month-old chocolate lab from Charlotte, by donating $2,500, which is half the cost for the dog. Donations to North Star pay for the rest.
Because the families of autistic children name their dogs, Bennie's name is part of that couple's name, who wants to remain anonymous, Monique Clement said.
Bennie, who was brought to Myrtle Beach in February, began his training with local dog trainer, Gina Crist, and his foster mom and SOS puppy raiser, Myrtle Beach resident Dee Duffy.
Two months later, he started going to the Clements' house for once-a-week training sessions.
"Bennie's very bright and he learns very quickly," said Duffy, who became a foster parent for Bennie because she said she believes in the benefits dogs bring to autistic children.
Bennie was permanently placed with the Clements in July.
"We are very, very relieved and very happy to have him," Jim Clement said on the day he brought Bennie home.
Bennie was placed with the family earlier than anticipated because of his progress.
By the second month of training, he was already obeying basic commands and understanding hand gestures with words.
That was evident during one of his training sessions at the Clements' house in May.
Jumping around, Bennie greeted everyone in the house before he was taken to the backyard to begin training with Thomas and Daniel.
Daniel decided to let Thomas work with Bennie first.
"Bennie, come!" commanded Crist as she was helping Thomas do the hand signals for Bennie to come to them. As Thomas sat in Crist's lap in the backyard hammock, Duffy stood at the other end of the yard and called to Bennie.
This went on for several minutes and then it was Daniel's turn.
Daniel and Duffy played hide and seek with Bennie as Bennie listened for the verbal and hand commands that led him to them hiding behind a tree. He was then rewarded with treats that Monique Clement had in treat pouches for Daniel, who does not like to touch the dog food because of its texture.
That same day, Bennie also learned the "paw command" where he is to use his paw to help stop Thomas when he flaps his arms.
"The dog can reduce emotional outbursts because dogs naturally reduce stress," Crist said. "A lot of autistic children have repetitive movements. Dogs can put their paw on a child to detract the movements. They attract positive attention and facilitate interaction between people and the child."
Bennie's distraction skills were put to the test during a later training in June at the Myrtle Beach Fire Station, No. 5.
Crist, Duffy and Jim Clement took turns tossing balls at Bennie, dropping his water and food bowls to the floor, and speaking loudly as ways of seeing how focused Bennie would be on the children despite surrounding distractions. Bennie succeeded as he did not jump or flinch and obeyed all the commands.
Over time, Thomas and Daniel warmed up to Bennie.
And as Bennie made progress, so did they. Daniel has played games and ball with Bennie, and Thomas once put his foot on Bennie - something that was a big step for him, Monique Clement said.
"My hope is to have a strong bond between my children and Bennie and that they can grow together and help each other," she said. "I don't have all the answers, but it would be great to have them comfort each other in some way."
An N.C. family's experience
Davis and Petrizzo, according to Gross, have been instrumental in getting dog placements in the Carolinas, including Sam, a chocolate lab, and Stormy, a Boykin spaniel, who were placed with families in North Carolina.
In February, Charlotte residents Reid and Sandy Smith, whose 11-year-old son, Douglas, was diagnosed with high-function autism at age 7, received Stormy, a Boykin spaniel, trained by Petrizzo.
Sandy Smith said Stormy brings a calmness to their home and has made a big difference in their lives. The couple also have two daughters, Allison, 9, and Natalie, 7.
"I don't think we realized how much of a comfort he would be for the girls," she said. "They are usually the brunt of Douglas' meltdowns."
She said Stormy also has helped with Douglas' educational efforts.
"Douglas has been reading to Stormy, where before he refused to read unless me or my husband was there. This gives us an opportunity to do other things while he reads to Stormy."