The following is a pass along email from Just Labs Magazine.
By Nona Kilgore Bauer
The black Lab watches her boy intently. Tristan is looking at his favorite book, Mimi’s Toes, while the dog snuggles against his leg. He can’t read the words and chatters to the dog about the book in language all his own. Five-year-old Tristan Kuhn has autism, and Tu is his service dog and best friend.
Tu is the first autism service dog to graduate from Retrieving Freedom, Inc., an assistance dog training organization based in Tristan’s home town of Waverly, Iowa. Incorporated as a 501c3 organization in October 2011, RFI trains service dogs for placement with veterans with post traumatic stress disorder and children with autism. RFI places their dogs based on a match between the dog and the specific needs of the individual client. Tu was the perfect match for Tristan.
“Tristan bonded to her immediately,” his mother, Lori Kuhn, said. “He is a completely different child because of Tu.” Tristan had stopped talking at 18 months of age and was still in diapers at five because he couldn’t learn to use the commode, Lori said. “But the first day Tu came to live with us, he spoke his first full sentence. He told Tu he would show her how to use the potty and took her to the bathroom. And now every time we’re in a store, he wants to take Tu to the restroom so he can show her again how to use the toilet.”
Tristan also has started talking to strangers in the store and asks them if they want to meet his dog. RFI trainer, Scott Dewey, said that type of social contact is a huge step for an autistic child. “The dog becomes a social bridge for the child. They are building a new communication skill set they didn’t have before, and they become willing to approach new situations,” he explained.
Scott is co-founder, president, and lead trainer at the RFI training facility in Waverly, Iowa. His partner, co-founder and vice-president, Charles Dwyer, operates their location in Sentobia, Mississippi. Long-time retriever trainers, they switched careers three years ago to follow what Scott considers a “higher calling,” to breed, select, and train first-class assistance dogs. With a combined 30 years of training dogs for competitive field work, their experience provides a unique understanding of the retriever personality and ability, and how to best utilize their unique characteristics as assistance dogs. RFI uses both Labs and golden retrievers in their program, since both breeds possess an affable disposition and a natural ability to perform complex tasks.