Sawyer (far left) and Ryker (right) go for a walk with their dad

New family member helps create independence

Specialized guide dog welcomed into home; ‘Roman’ is already making a significant impact

As students prepare to go back to school, a student of a different, hairier sort is celebrating his graduation.

Roman, a two year-old black Labrador Retriever, has recently completed his training with B.C. and Alberta Guide Dogs and is now being integrated into his new home in View Royal.

The pup is in the process of getting to know his new family, Heather and Blair Stevens and their two sons, Sawyer, 7, and Ryker, 5, and has already been a welcome addition to the family’s home.

Sawyer and Ryker are both autistic, and Roman’s presence has already made a tremendous impact on how the family lives from day to day.

“It’s absolutely life changing,” Heather said.

Roman’s primary responsibility is the safety of the boys. Both Sawyer and Ryker, like many autistic children, have a tendency to run, or “bolt,” when they see something that excites them. This can range from a distant fire truck or a particularly enticing toy at the mall.

This has made public spaces a struggle for Heather and Blair, as both boys can be a lot to handle for one parent. Until now it has been impossible for either parent to take both kids out in public by themselves.

“It’s those things that you take for granted. I mean, who doesn’t take their kids for a walk? I never have,” Heather said, while getting visibly emotional as she spoke.

Now, whenever the family is out for a walk, one of the boys can be attached from their belt to Roman’s vest. If Roman feels the boy is planning to run, the 65-pound Lab has been trained to anchor himself to the ground to prevent them from doing so.

As the boys get bigger and stronger, that might become an even bigger challenge for Roman, but his trainers believe he is more than up to the task.

“Usually once he gets his feet under him he’s fine,” noted Laura Hillbert, an autism support dog instructor with B.C. and Alberta Guide Dogs and one of Roman’s primary trainers.

“It’s [difficult] when he’s at the mall with a slippery floor … but even then it gives the parents an extra 10 or 15 seconds.”

Training a dog to be ready for this line of work is no small task, and a lot of patience is required, as Hillbert explains.

“It’s patience and a lot of repetition. At first, we show him what to do … then slowly we just start to put more of the emphasis on his shoulders, so he has to know what to do,” she said.

There are other benefits to having Roman that go beyond safety, as Heather has already discovered. He’s quickly becoming a companion for her two sons, and that’s had numerous positive effects on the family’s day-to-day lives.

It used to be a struggle for Heather to get her boys to clean up their toys or go somewhere that they didn’t want to, but that’s changing.

“The kids are picking up all of their toys because they’ve got this respect for him as a member of our family and they don’t want him to trip on a toy or eat a toy, so they’re cleaning up after themselves,” Heather said.

There are also certain therapeutic benefits that Roman can have for the children. “We teach the dog to wear a shirt that has buttons on it, so that the kids can learn to do buttons,” Hillbert said. She also trains the dog to be able to apply deep pressure to the kids, essentially sitting on them.

“Most kids with [autism] really crave that deep pressure. So if they’re out and about and having a meltdown, it’s usually a way that can help calm them down.”

While many autistic individuals struggle with transitions, Roman can act as a constant for them, as he’s able to go everywhere.

Eventually, Roman could be eligible to accompany the boys to school, if that’s what their parents want. “It’s just creating that extra calming factor,” Heather said.

Most importantly, however, the Stevens family will have the ability to take their kids wherever they like and not worry about the consequences.

“The most life-changing, impactful thing will be the safety, because it just opens up a whole new world for us with what we can and can’t do,” Heather said.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Unemployment surpasses historic high in Greater Victoria, tourism hit hard

Hospitality and tourism sectors hurting as pandemic continues

Victoria tattoo shops respond to sex assault allegations against male artists

Carne Tattoo and Painted Lotus Studios respond to allegations

Mayor not in favour of low barrier housing at Oak Bay Lodge

Process is already in place to determine future of Oak Bay Lodge

Minivan driver’s speed a factor in fatal 2018 Malahat crash

Driver was travelling at 101 km/h in a construction zone

Turned over truck impedes traffic in Langford

Truck at the side of Millstream Road near Western Speedway

VIDEO: Langford cat missing 18 months reunited with family

Blue the cat found at Victoria museum 17 kilometres from home

Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers wanted list for the week of July 7

Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers is seeking the public’s help in locating the… Continue reading

POLL: Would you get a vaccine for COVID-19 when it is available?

With the number of positive COVID-19 tests skyrocketing across much of the… Continue reading

VIDEO: Alberta man rescues baby eagle believed to be drowning in East Kootenay lake

Brett Bacon was boating on a lake in Windermere when he spotted the baby eagle struggling in the water

Vancouver Island business ad unintentionally features OK gesture linked to white supremacy

Innocuous ‘OK’ gesture in cleaning franchise advertisement gets flak on social media for ‘supposedly’ promoting white supremacy

Comox Valley RCMP looking for missing woman

Ami Guthrie was last seen in Courtenay in early July

Conservationists raise concerns over state of care for grizzly cubs transferred to B.C. zoo

‘Let them be assessed now before their fate is sealed,’ urges B.C. conservationist Barb Murray

B.C.’s COVID-19 job recovery led by tourism, finance minister says

Okanagan a bright spot for in-province visitor economy

National Kitten Day aka the ‘purrfect’ day to foster a new friend

July 10 marks National Kitten Day, a special day to celebrate all things kittens

Most Read