The story of a boy and his dog bonding and growing up together has been played out and told many times through the years.
However, this story is about a German Shepherd puppy named Luna who has a higher calling than a mere companion and family pet. Luna is a service dog-in-training paired with seven-year-old Matteo, who has autism.
At six and nine months old, Matteo’s mom, Marie Sauret, knew something was different about Matteo. Pediatricians told her not to compare Matteo to her older son or her years of experience as a nanny and school teacher.
After turning two, Matteo, who is nonverbal, was diagnosed with level III autism, indicating his neurobiological differences impact his daily life.
As Matteo grew older, he began wandering. A behavior that is also called “elopement.”
Matteo ran away from the car in a Target parking lot. He ran away from home and was found in the woods. And the seven-house walk up the street to his grandmother’s house can prove daunting as his attention gets diverted to sights and sounds along the way, tempting him to dart off in their direction.
The wandering caused Marie to start researching service dogs. “At first, I didn’t think it was something I would pursue,” she said, but she kept researching.
Marie found one breeder and trainer in the Pittsburgh area who works with families who have a child with autism.
K9s for Kids
K9 for Kids is based in Hickory, Pennsylvania, and operated by Stephanie and Steve Kiray.
In the mid-2000s, Stephanie got a phone call from a family member that $20,000 needed to be raised for an autism service dog.
Stephanie’s husband, Steve, had a background training search and rescue and police dogs. He couldn’t believe the $20,000 price tag because he knew Czech Republic dogs could be imported for $6,000 and sold for $10,000 after being trained in the U.S.
The Kirays knew they could specialize in training dogs for those with autism and charge less for them. In 2008, K9s for Kids was launched.
Most therapy dogs are nearly two-years-old and trained before being placed with a family. The Kiray’s dogs are different.
The Kiray’s breed from proven Czech Republic lines used for service dogs and care for the puppies until eight weeks of age. At eight weeks, the pups are sent home with prospective families.
The cost of a puppy and training is $7,000. “It’s not just dog training. It’s more like therapy,” Mr. Kiray said. “It’s a safety issue. Before they’re even certified, dogs, normally within the first six months, will do something to save your child’s life.”
Some families can pay the $7,000 fee. Other families fundraise privately. In Matteo’s case, the Autism Society of Pittsburgh approved his family’s need and gifted a service dog via a grant provided by Camp Bow Wow’s Green Tree location.
K9s for Kids puppies choose their family, not the other way around. The day Matteo’s family was set to meet their future family member, Mr. Kiray brought out two puppies.
After her collar color, a puppy named purple ran up to Matteo’s mom and licked her face. Mr. Kiray instructed Matteo and his dad to run away from the puppy. Purple chased after Matteo making the match clear. In early March 2022, “Purple” became “Luna.”
The role of service dogs is adapted to each autistic person’s needs. For Matteo, that’s preventing elopement, calming his anxiety, and providing a steady presence for when his parents need to leave him with a family member.
The unpredictable sounds and movements at public parks can spark Matteo’s urge to bolt. The family doesn’t even attempt amusement parks. Vacations are not possible because hotel rooms aren’t equipped with cameras or redundant locks the family utilizes at home.
Even at home, safety is a constant concern. Matteo’s parents sometimes don’t sleep, preferring to rely on themselves rather than all the safety mechanisms they have in place. And while many 7-year-olds begin to gain some independence, Matteo always requires adult supervision.
But that’s where Luna comes in, with an arsenal of skills that directly and indirectly support his parents, older brother, Mica, 10, and younger brother, Palmiro, 5.
Families who pursue service dogs through the Autism Society of Pittsburgh’s grants are assessed for financial needs and the child’s behavioral needs. Once approved for a service dog, K9s for Kids has only one requirement: commitment.
The Kirays unite special needs families with 8-week-old puppies, who commit to training every Sunday for a year to ensure the dog will become a certified service animal.
Families have to do their homework during the week. “An hour-and-a-half on a Sunday will not get the puppies trained,” Mr. Kiray said.
When training is complete, and likely during it, Luna will spend every night lying in front of the front door, ready to bark explosively should Matteo try to elope. She’ll learn Matteo’s “stimming” behaviors — hand flapping or spinning — and respond by bumping into him, perhaps inspiring him to calm himself by petting her instead.
Other Matteo-specific responses will be learned together, relying on Luna’s breed and lineage for the urge to please those who feed, praise, and care for her. That much is science. But what no one can quantify is the bond between dog and child.
After just a few weeks together and not a single formal training class yet, Matteo is already using language more, halting Luna’s wake-up kisses with a firm “stop it” when he’s had enough.
Matteo’s unpredictable sprints into neighbors’ yards have been replaced with concern for Luna.
In October, the family plans to visit a theme park because of their confidence in the furry family member who chose them.
“When Matteo elopes, it’s usually because he’s curious and wants to discover the world,” Matteo’s dad said. “When Luna is with him, it gives him a new way to experience the world because of their connection. It’s impossible to overstate how fortunate we feel.”
To learn more about K9s for Kids click HERE.
To donate to Autism Society’s K9 for Kids fund, click HERE.
h/t Pittsburgh Post-GazetteAbby Mackey: firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter @AnthroAbbyRN, and IG @abbymackeywrites.