Service Dog on a Mission
By Bill Johnson / October, 2011

Oscar is only 14 months old but has a special mission in life. To be prepared, he required a year of training in South Carolina. In July, he was posted for duty in Parkland, a long way from where he was bred in Georgia. Oscar is now a highly trained service dog. His mission is to help a Parkland boy who suffers from Phelan-McDermid Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder known to afflict fewer than 600 individuals around the world. The condition results in numerous developmental disabilities, including autistic-like behavior.

A "behavioral distraction dog" is Oscar's official title. His role is to be a companion and friend to Jack Mancini, who will be four years old in November. Oscar, it is hoped, will provide comfort and confidence to the child. This special dog can be a calming presence in Jack's life and may reduce his emotional outbursts. The "distraction dog" is specifically trained to distract a child from robotic, repetitive or dangerous behavior.

Jack's parents, Jennifer and Dave Mancini, are hopeful that the Golden Retriever now in their family will be beneficial to their son and make caring for him a bit less stressful for them.

At times, Jack's four-legged friend will be tethered to him to keep him from wandering off or getting into danger. "Jack needs attention and must be watched all the time," his mother says.

She explains that little Jack has no sense of danger and doesn't feel pain as much as the rest of us. Because being near a hot stove or a pot of boiling water is dangerous for him, the dog will keep him away. "Oscar will provide a little more security for us," she says.

Because Jack doesn't talk, he has no social relationships, no friends. Oscar doesn't care and will be a loyal friend.

The Mancini family waited more than a year to bring Oscar home from the Service Dog Institute in South Carolina, which dedicates itself to providing service dogs for children with disabilities. Instead of generic training, each dog is matched with a specific child and trained accordingly. Most of the dogs are Labrador Retrievers or Golden Retrievers and are bred to be service dogs. Their path to someone's side begins as puppies. For the first six months or so, they are cared for by volunteer trainers. They are then matched with a professional trainer for six to twelve months.

This can be costly. Melissa Yetter, director of the Service Dog Institute, says the institute cannot charge a fee for the dogs because it is a non-profit organization. But it helps families organize fundraising events to donate $13,000 to $15,000 to the organization. The Mancini family raised nearly $20,000 in a charitable bowling event last year. The Mancinis donated the money to the Service Dog Institute and to the Phelan-McDermid Foundation for research on this rare condition.

Yetter is quick to emphasize that a service dog is not a cure for a developmentally disabled child, but can help parents care for a child and be a child's best friend, as well as improve times when the child is out in public. For three years, Yetter's son has had a service dog companion. "It allows my son to be more accepted in society," she says. "The presence of the dog takes pressure off my son in public."

Service dogs have been trained for many years. But with the increase in autism among children, Yetter expects there will be increased interest in service dogs for such children.

The adage may be true. A dog may, indeed, be man's best friend. But for a boy with special needs, a dog is much more than that.

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