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Cambridge resident Nichole Laase never thought she could go out to eat with her 6-year-old son Preston. But after welcoming Kona, a yellow Labrador retriever service dog, into the family Jan. 30, she’s been able to do just that.
Preston was diagnosed with autism when he was 2 years old. Since then, it’s been a series of adjustments for Laase and her husband Corey Laase.
“We’ve always had to put Preston in the cart or take turns going shopping, but with Kona he’s really calm and we’re able to get our shopping done,” Nichole said. “We don’t feel like we have to wait until someone’s home to watch him. We can go out and do things now.”
Kona is an autism assist dog from the nonprofit organization Can Do Canines, which supplies dogs to people with various medical and developmental conditions, from diabetes to hearing impairment. The organization services Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Wisconsin.
It took four years for Nichole to finally have Kona as part of the family, but it’s been nothing but a gift for them.
The three of them went to Wal-Mart, Target and out to eat together for the first time since Preston was a baby. Nichole was even able to try on clothes at a store, which is something she never thought she could do while with Preston, she said.
“They’re buddies,” Nichole said. “Kona just calms him somehow.”
The primary purpose of an autism assist dog is to prevent the child from running away. Kona is tethered to Preston and can sense when he’s about to bolt. Kona will then stay in his position, so that Nichole and Corey can get Preston and continue with whatever they are doing. But Kona has also helped Preston with other things, too.
Before Kona, Preston had trouble sleeping and would get out of bed. Now, the two go to bed at about 8 p.m. and sleep through the night. With Kona, Preston also has a better time eating and can stay seated longer during meal time.
A typical day with Kona starts with Preston waking up, getting dressed, eating breakfast and letting Kona out. Preston has to feed Kona before heading to school. After school he has applied behavior analysis therapy before free time. Preston is also in charge of taking Kona on walks with Nichole.
Nichole said Preston seems to enjoy the responsibility. That’s something that Can Do Canine client services coordinator Leslie Flowers has seen in other autism assist dogs and their children.
“They take lots of pride in taking care of their dog,” Flowers said. She said other families have also reported improvements with tantrums.
A typical wait time for an autism service dog is about three years, said Flowers, who is also the Laases’ trainer.
“The wait time is long because not every dog has the temperament to be an autism assist dog,” Flowers said. “These dogs must be very laid back and accepting of behaviors associated with the mood swings of autistic children.”
Kona is a playful and bubbly 2-year-old dog. He likes chew toys and cuddling, but when he puts on his suit, he knows it’s time to work. He and other dogs have helped children like Preston gain independence and a sense of freedom since the program graduated its first dog, Reno, in 2007.
Autism assist dogs make up about 10-15 percent of the dogs placed by Can Do Canines, Flowers said. This year, Preston and Kona are one of the three that currently have autism assist dogs. Last year, the organization placed eight autism service dogs into homes, and a total of 443 for the entire organization. Every dog given by the organization goes through $25,000 of training and is given to families free of charge.
Nichole and Corey hope it helps Preston to become more independent and help people understand him better.
“People just write (children with autism) off as being retarded or having Down syndrome, which is a totally different thing,” Corey said. But with Kona around, he said, “People want to understand what’s going on.”
Corey and Nichole want others to see Preston as he is: a loving, cuddly and tech-savvy 6-year-old who knows more about how to work an iPad than most kids his age.