WHITE ROCK, B.C. - Pepe, a chocolate Labrador retriever, pays very close attention when her 13-year-old owner Maya doles out dog goodies.
Treat time is one of the few common dog-owner interactions between Maya and her autism-support dog in what is an uncommon relationship. That bond has not only dramatically improved the girl's life, but has enhanced the outlook for her entire family.
Maya's mother, Nicole Kaler, explained that Maya is severely affected by autism.
The girl is non-verbal, and at about two years old, she began bolting, frequently running away, sometimes in dangerous situations. Keeping the family together outside of the house became increasingly difficult as Maya grew.
"It became really difficult to just be out and about and make sure that she was safe," Kaler said in a recent interview in her White Rock home. "I knew support dogs were trained to keep children safe. I knew it would be a good fit for us if we could be accepted into the program."
Five years ago, Pepe joined the Kalers. Suddenly, things were possible that weren't options before she arrived.
"One day we couldn't go for a walk up the block and the next day we could," Kaler said of the dramatic transformation the dog made in her family's life.
"Pepe knew how to do her job. We could just go out as a family and know everybody was going to be safe."
The family went on vacation to Disneyland that year. This year, they went to Palm Desert.
When Kaler started working with Maya in 2009, Pepe was one of the first few support dogs in the province.
She was bred, raised and trained by British Columbia Guide Dogs, which started placing autism support dogs one year earlier. Before that, guide dogs for the blind and visually impaired had been the organization's main work.
"We use Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, lab-golden crosses and this new breed of a golden-border-collie cross," said puppy obedience trainer Linda Thornton. "We need a big dog, obviously. They're people-oriented. They're willing to work. They're friendly and they're calm. After basic obedience, they go into advanced training at about 15 months."
Puppies board in volunteer households. "We're like a foster family," said puppy-raiser Brenda Wagner. "And we take them through basic obedience training."
Training takes about 100 hours over 20 weeks and advanced trainer Nick Toni said the regimen is a combination of navigating busy urban centres and using public transit.
The dogs must also develop a spatial sense to ensure their eventual owners aren't endangered by obstacles that the dogs could pass under but a person would collide with, such as branches or low-hanging signs.
Knowing the difference between working while wearing the harness and taking a break when it's off is another key element.
About 60 per cent of the dogs are placed as guide or as autism support dogs. Dogs that are found to be too nervous or are easily distracted are adopted as pets. Thornton said there's a waiting list for the washouts.
"The last month of training is finding a client for a particular dog. Matching a dog with a person is probably the most important part of the procedure," Toni said. "Then the dog is working in the home where they'll be living and the person is being trained in how to handle the dog. They train as a team for three weeks."
Kaler said her training was rigorous and complete.
"And it was outside the realm of what I'd ever done before because I'd never had a dog — big change. When Pepe's in jacket, she is working. And she knows it. She's a completely different dog — straight ahead, eyes fixed, by her girl."
Pepe and Nicole have to pass a test every year to maintain public access.
Kaler said many people ask her what an autism support dog does. She can only answer that it's unique to each child because autism is a spectrum, so the dog's job is on a spectrum.
"The agency is so well-versed in placing the right dogs with the right children and the right families that it ends up being not just a lovely relationship for the family," she said. "But it's an essential tool for families to live with dignity and as fully as possible. It's been a great gift for us."