When Abigail Keylon is distressed, she seeks higher ground.
On this particular Saturday in late December, that meant the severely autistic 12-year-old, spooked by unfamiliar surroundings at the Wilderwood Service Dogs facility in Maryville, scrambled to the top of a piano in the rec room. Only this time, her service dog Ira, a petite golden retriever, leapt up right behind her. And then, as she had been trained to do, Ira stood over Abigail, right on top of the piano, keeping the girl from moving until the adults in the room could bring her back down.
Girl and dog had known each other only a few hours.
"I don't know how Ira could have made it any more clear that she understood, ‘This is my child,'" says Deanna Hall, a longtime Wilderwood volunteer and the facility's spokesperson. The occasion was the first day of "graduation week" for several families who would be taking home Wilderwood service dogs.
"Abigail was the most difficult child, the one with the most challenges," says her mom, Lou Ann Keylon, who with Abigail's older sister Hannah came to Wilderwood to learn how to handle the dog who was joining their family. "During the week, all the other dogs would be sleeping and Ira would be working up a sweat."
"Abigail was a wild child, jumping over tables—it was like, ‘Oh God, there she goes!'" says Hall. "But it's a week-long graduation, and on the very last day, Abigail's sister and mom took the exam to be Ira's handlers. Abigail was able to lie quietly on the floor for a whole hour with her head on her dog. And that's just after a week!"
Ira and Abigail were one of the latest pairs to "graduate" from Wilderwood. Executive director Tiffany Denyer, then a psychiatric nurse with 11 years experience, founded the non-profit in November 2005. Wilderwood has placed 27 dogs total, but Ira is the first to go to a home in this area; the Keylons live in Walland. Just one of five similar programs in the nation, Wilderwood trains and provides dogs for people with neurological disorders such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, and, most often, autism, which is a pervasive and lifelong developmental disorder. The symptoms include differences and disabilities in many areas—social communication, fine and gross motor skills, and sometimes intellectual skills.
A "spectrum" disorder, autism can range from mild to profound developmental delays and challenges. Abigail has severe autism; she is non-verbal but seems to have at least an average IQ. "It's impossible to measure, but you can tell she really understands what's going on, and she can follow simple commands like, ‘Take this paper to the trash can,'" says her father Ron, a pharmacist who works the night shift. "Of course, the next day, she might ignore the same command, and you, entirely."
Ira (who is female, despite her name), learned skills at Wilderwood that help the family cope, like nudging the child to break a self-harming or repetitious behavior. She and other Wilderwood graduates are also guardians who can retrieve a child who impulsively bolts, or alert parents by barking if a child wakes in the night, a prime opportunity for getting hurt or wreaking havoc. "The dog's goal is to maintain the safety of the child at all times, and one of the great joys is to see tired parents of a child with autism sleep soundly for the first night since the diagnosis," says Denyer.
You maybe have to be the parent of a child like Abigail, who is the middle of five kids ranging in age from 8-17, to truly appreciate what these dogs do, says Lou Ann, a former high school teacher. "Abigail has gotten out of the house twice, even with the internal locks, and if the neighbors hadn't called... And a week after I had her younger sister, and I was trying to control Abigail and the baby, she got away from me in a parking lot and almost ran into a car."
These days, there's no way Abigail could get away when she and her mother are out and about—she's tethered to Ira, and would have to pull the dog wherever she goes. "With autism, a lot of the kids fixate on something—some watch the ceiling fan. Abigail's not a big one for spinning things, but she likes sifting things through her hands. She loves socks, so that's what we use as the extension for Ira's harness; her sister Hannah's volleyball sock, tied to the harness. Being attached to that tether gives Abigail so much more independence. You can just feel her freedom."
Ira is trained to streak after Abigail and bring her to the ground if necessary. "Our dogs will stand over the child or lie on top of them in those situations, and they'd let a car run right over them before they got up," Hall says.
Just as important to the Keylons is the developmental promise Ira brings to Abigail, and just the unconditional love. "Ira makes Abigail more attentive, and affectionate—in part because she's competing with the dog for my attention," says Lou Ann with a laugh. "Monday we were sitting in the speech pathologist's office and Abigail was in a good mood. She got down in Ira's face and started to smile. Then she touched her nose to Ira's and kissed her. Little things like that will happen that just blow me away."
But that's getting ahead of the story. About a year of highly specialized training comes before any of these tender moments, although the recruiting for Wilderwood is pretty heart-warming, too. Seventy percent of the service dogs are rescue animals, while the other 30 percent are given to Wilderwood by breeders. They start training under the auspices of Denyer and three other professionals while they're still puppies, boarding at Savannah Spring Kennels near Lenoir City. It's clean and serviceable, a low-lying weatherproof cinderblock building—nothing special, but dogs and trainers do amazing things there, beginning with learning 50-70 commands in three or four months, like "wait" and "sit," and even "cuddle."
Volunteers come and sign them out of the shelter to complete a rigorous list of dozens of public visits, taking them out to, say, the post office or the Wal-Mart. The dogs move from the kennel to become what Hall calls "hip dogs," joining a foster family for another six to eight months to learn how to live closely with and serve a human. The current rookies are mostly golden retrievers and labradors, which is typical, but a white and black pure mutt and a long-legged fuzzy Golden-doodle are in the mix, too, and Wilderwood is donating an outsized Pyrenees/white lab mix to an autistic boy in Oklahoma as part of the ABC show Extreme Makeover.
An impressive 75 percent of dogs who start at Wilderwood get paired with a human. The ones who "wash out" are thwarted by tendencies like "chases birds" or "barks at the UPS man." They are adopted out; Hall herself has a Wilderwood "alumnus," Ruthie, a schnoodle (schnauzer-poodle mix). "She's just too hyper," says Hall, "and needs to inform all around her each and every time she sees a cat, including the one who lives at her house."
The final step for the dogs without those idiosyncrasies is placement with a family; the wait is usually about a year and a half. Denyer may still be weighing a couple of suitable dog candidates pretty late in the game. Once she pairs a dog with someone to serve, though, the final step is teaching the animal another 10 commands or so that are specific just to that owner. Ira, for example, has learned to interrupt Abigail when she starts clapping her hands over her ears, the dog learned the skill watching Denyer mimic Abigail's habit.
The total cost for each dog is $14,000; the family is expected to raise $5,000 of that and tap a corporate sponsor for another $5,000; Wilderwood assumes the remaining cost. The Keylons were supported by Leadership Blount Class 2008. "God is so good—that money just rolled in," says Lou Ann. "If folks could only know what a difference these dogs can make in a kid's life. In the whole family's lives. Once you get that diagnosis, you are no longer living on Planet Earth. Our family lives on Planet Autism. I always say Ira's a big piece of our puzzle."
Because of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Ira may accompany Abigail to her special education classroom at Eagleton Elementary. The dog goes with the girl and her mother to speech pathology two hours a day, four days a week at Parent-Child Services Group off Weisgarber. "Ira's just incredible to me; does she not just exude peace?" says Abigail's speech pathologist of two years, Susan Hock. "I hear a lot more gibber gabber from Abigail. And see a lot more smiles. Before Ira, the thought of Abigail walking down the hall just holding on to a dog, that was about the furthest thing in the world from anything we could imagine. Since she's had Ira, she's empowered."
Ira and Abigail play at home, and sleep in the same bed. "We're three months in, and so far the only thing that's gotten Ira upset is the platform swing in Abigail's room. She can get really wild, and Ira didn't like that. She barked and got us, to let us know."
So far, so good, says Lou Ann, but they'd like to go a lot further. "This is a long, exhausting process," she says. "It's not like the movies. Ira's not Lassie. We're building a relationship; it's a process. But Abigail's done so much in three months—I can't even imagine how good she's going to be in a year."