Specially trained dogs offer invaluable help to their owners

We all love our animals. The wagging tail and whimpering glee that greets you at the end of the day or the affectionate purr while relaxing on the couch can put a smile on any pet owner’s face.
Many pets have a keen ability to sense when their owner is happy or sad, providing an extra lick or gentle gaze during times of need. We turn to them for unconditional love and to help soften the hard days in life.
For some, this purpose is even more defined than for others. Service and assistance animals are specifically trained and kept to help people who live with disabilities navigate the world. While service animals are most commonly dogs, there are also service monkeys, birds and miniature horses documented in the United States. These animals are specifically trained to help a disabled person perform specific tasks related to their disability. Trained, working service dogs are legally allowed to accompany their owners into any public place, including schools, restaurants, hotels, shops, grocery stores, hospitals, etc.
When many people think of service animals they commonly think of those who provide assistance to humans with physical disabilities (such as blindness or paralysis). However, dogs and other assistance animals can also provide aid to individuals with neurological, psychiatric or emotional disabilities, such as autism spectrum disorder, anxiety or depression.
Pierce Murray is a 15-year-old Middlebury resident who is autistic. He struggles with anxiety and is easily overwhelmed, especially when faced with something new. He also suffers seizures and panic attacks.
Pierce grew up with two Jack Russell dogs in the house, but one — Jake — that he was especially fond of.
“Jake would sleep in Pierce’s bed with him and calm him when he had his anxiety attacks and just be around. He wasn’t a service dog or anything, but they had some kind of intuitive understanding,” recalled Andrea Murray, Pierce’s mother.
Soon after Jake passed, Pierce started asking where he had gone and stating that he missed his pal. So Andrea and her husband, Chris, began to look into getting another dog.
What they found was a non-profit organization based in Portland, Ore., called Autism Service Dogs of America. They submitted a long and intensive application and were admitted to the program.
Ivy is a golden retriever who was bred and trained by the organization specifically with Pierce in mind. It took two years to complete her training, pass all of the necessary tests and be ready for integration into the Murray household. She has now been with the family two years.
Ivy is a sweet and gentle dog who enjoys a pet on the head or a nap in the sun — when she doesn’t have her vest on.
“But once you put her vest on, she is instantly a different dog,” Andrea Murray explains. “She knows she is working and is totally focused on the task at hand.”
IVY’S GENTLE DEMEANOR and soft, well-groomed coat are qualities that any dog owner would admire in their beloved pet. But for fifteen-year-old Pierce Murray, who has autism, these qualities especially valuable. When Pierce begins to feel anxious or overwhelmed, Ivy is trained to stay close to him and put her head or body on his lap. This pressure, and her soft fur, helps calm Pierce down and work through a stressful situation calmly. Independent photo/Trent Campbell
Murray says it took somewhere between six and nine months for Ivy to really bond with Pierce and recognize that he is her charge. It took Pierce a similar amount of time to bond with her and expect that she should be with him wherever he goes.
“Pierce has some motor planning and rhythm issues when walking, so when he walks with Ivy she sets the pace and they kind of co-regulate with one another,” Murray explains.
Ivy has become a wonderful social catalyst and conversation-starter for Pierce as well, making interactions more comfortable and situations that previously would have made him uncomfortable much easier.
One easy example Murray gave was from last year’s Memorial Day parade in Middlebury. Pierce loves trucks and tractors and the parade has provided an opportunity to see some of the largest in town, all collected together. But each year he had built it up in his mind and had gotten so excited about it that when the day of the parade came he had gotten so anxious about seeing them that they would have to leave the parade to prevent a panic attack.
“He would never make it and we’d have to come home and watch it on MCTV or something,” Murray recalled.
“But last year, for the first time, we went and we sat with Ivy across his lap on the steps of the Folklife Center and he had the best time EVER.”
Ivy also accompanied Pierce to the dentist, which had previously made him incredibly anxious, but just with her sitting by the chair, Pierce was calm enough to follow the directions and proceed with the check-up.
“Part of it might be maturity,” Murray says, “but a lot of it is just that Ivy provides that security — in a lot of ways. She makes him feel safe and comfortable.”
That sense of security might be partially explained by a natural affinity for dogs, but the Murrays also work constantly with Pierce and Ivy to support that bond.
“If he would have a little fit or something, getting her on him — even just putting her head on his lap — so he can feel that pressure, is really, really helpful.”
Ivy is also extraordinarily soft, with long white hair (that Andrea grooms every morning before school). “When he’s stressed, he can just rub her and that amazing softness calms him down and makes him feel safe again,” she says.
Ivy accompanies Pierce to school every day and is handled by his one-on-one assistant at Middlebury Union Middle School. She also goes to restaurants, has flown on airplanes with him, ridden on trains and goes to the doctor with him. She knows around 50 commands and wears both a gentle leader that is held by the handler, as well as the vest, which has a handle that Pierce holds. She walks and takes stairs slowly, going up two, then waiting, then going up two more.
Pierce’s seizures are mostly controlled by medication, but he has had two or three since they have had Ivy.
“When we got Ivy they couldn’t promise that she would be able to detect seizures,” Murray explained, as each service animal is only trained for a specific task. “The first time he had a seizure and we had Ivy, she totally freaked out. She went up to the hill at the top of our property and just sat there and stared at the house. I think she felt like she had totally failed her job or something.”
But since then — while she hasn’t been able to detect the seizures yet — Ivy has stayed by Pierce. Even during his various episodes and even when she’s not working, she’ll intuitively pick up on things that are going on with him. She sleeps with him or by his door at night and just kind of knows that she protects him.
When I asked Pierce to share something with me about Ivy, he said simply, “Ivy is my dog.” So I asked how Ivy made him feel. “Happy,” he replied.
Kaitlin Wood is a sophomore at Middlebury College, who suffers from a generalized anxiety disorder. When she started at Middlebury, Wood said she didn’t know if she was going to make it as a college student.
“It was hard to get myself out of my room at times,” she says. The thought of going out to a meal or the library would be quite overwhelming.
Wood has always been an animal lover and her family in New Hampshire always kept dogs. With her anxiety, Wood has a difficult time reading and relating to other people, but has always felt a certain comfort around dogs.
One day, as if inspired by chance, Wood got the idea to look into having a dog on campus that would help her be more comfortable. She worked with Jodi Litchfield, the campus ADA Coordinator, to file the various forms and paperwork and was granted permission to bring her canine companion, Molly, to campus this year.
While Wood says they have permitted assistance animals at Middlebury previously during summer programs, she is the first to be granted access to bring an assistant dog to campus during the academic year.
Molly was adopted through a rescue organization called Passion for Paws out of Shelburne, that works to save animals housed at high-kill shelters. Molly is missing one leg, which was amputated following her rescue from a large flood and mysterious trauma that cost her a paw. She is a pitbull-boxer mix and is a sweet and loving gal who adores snuggling and greeting passers-by.
Middlebury College sophomore Kaitlin Wood is one lucky student: she gets to have her dog with her at school. Wood has a generalized anxiety disorder and after a challenging first year on campus she worked with the college to enable her to bring her canine pal Molly, to school with her as an assistance animal. “I can’t even begin to describe what a difference she has made to my experience,” Wood says. Independent photo/Christy Lynn
Molly is not a certified service animal, but rather an assistance animal (also referred to as emotional support animals, comfort animals, or companion animals). The main distinction is that assistance animals are not legally granted access to all of the places that service animals may go with their humans.
On campus, Molly is permitted anywhere inside the dorm with Wood and in any of the outdoor areas, as well as some of the other buildings on campus. Some teachers have granted Molly access to the classroom, but for the most part Molly waits to hang out with Wood after class.
“I cannot even begin to explain what an enormous difference it has made to my experience on campus,” Wood said. “Because I have to take care of her, it also makes me take care of me.”
Molly is a natural conversation-starter, not just because there’s a dog on campus (which is certainly not common), but because there’s a three-legged dog on campus — and a very cute one, at that.
“People often stop to ask about her — often about what happened to her leg. It’s a good way to meet people and I’ve made some great friends that started by a conversation about Molly.”
Having a dog has eased the stress and pressure Wood feels around others, as it has turned the focus to the dog and Wood feels less judged herself. When she is having a bad day or is feeling down, Molly seems to know that she needs an extra cuddle or lick on the hand.

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