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.

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