A Special Friend for a Special Child

Every child goes through “lonely” periods – times during their lives where they feel left out by friends, are frightened of the dark, or have no one close to play with or talk to, except their own family. Although assistance dogs often fill “helper” roles for physically-challenged individuals, they can also fill a truly unique role as ‘special friends’ for children with special needs.

Will, the son of Kim and David Stoneburner, was diagnosed with Down syndrome when he was two days old. Unlike many children with DS who may have additional health problems, he is an otherwise happy, healthy child. While it took him somewhat longer to smile, to walk, or learn to talk, he leads a relatively normal life, and will be attending 4th grade at Wheeler Elementary School in Millard this fall.

But his life can be lonely.

Writing in Will’s voice, Kim regularly sends out updates to his teachers at school.

 “Now you might wonder why do I need a service dog?  I get by okay.  I can get where I am going.  I can tell you what I need.  Well, to be honest, for me it is about having a buddy. . .  I don’t have as many play dates, party invitations, or sports games as your typical guy.”

Will’s family includes his parents and two sisters. When his siblings were younger, everyone kept Will entertained. But now, Kim said, as his sisters get older, they are off “doing their own thing.”

 “I need to have a buddy to hang with, to watch me shoot hoops, to cuddle with at night.  I know a regular old dog could do that, too, but that’s where my parents come in.  They need someone to keep an eye on me.  I like to wander off and disappear. This really freaks my parents out”

On August 5, all that will change.  Thanks to CARES Inc., of Concordia, Kan., Will is set to receive a service dog that has been specially trained to change the quality of his life.

Founded in 1994, CARES Inc. provides and trains a wide range of  dogs, ranging from professional therapy dogs that work in schools, assisted living facilities and nursing homes, and assistance dogs. They’ve also helped “start” puppies for law enforcement agencies, and trained search and rescue K9s. Since its start, more than 1,100 dogs have been placed in 41 states and five foreign countries.

It’s taken more than a year for Will to get his dog. But Kim said her son is thrilled the big day is about to arrive.

It will take a full week of training for Will and his family and his new four-legged buddy. At this point, they don’t know the age, gender or breed of dog.   “All they will tell me is that it has four legs and a wet nose,” laughs Kim.

In a unique twist, Will’s dog is one of many that were initially trained by inmates at a Kansas correctional institution. After their “puppyhood,” the dogs receive additional training with CARES staff and volunteers.

Sarah Holbert, founder and CEO of CARES Inc., estimates the organization has placed about 150 dogs with children who are autistic or with Down syndrome.

All assistance dogs are unique, but dogs that serve children like Will require special abilities. For example, while children with Down syndrome are often friendly and outgoing, they are not used to being “in the position of power,” Holbert said. The dogs need to accept their new owner as the “alpha.”

In addition, the children may not have fine motor skills, and dogs are trained to recognize gross motor skills in the form of commands. Dogs may even be trained to serve as a “brace,” to allow the owner to use them to get up from the floor, or to get up on a lap or “give a hug.”

“When the kiddos are having a meltdown or having a tough time, just petting the dog can lower the anxiety for the kids and get them concentrated on the task at hand,” explains Holbert. “The dogs are always calm, cool and collected, regardless of what happens with the child.”

 “I can only imagine all of the things my dog will be able to do!”

Among Will’s dog’s duties will be to serve as a “second set of eyes” for Kim and David.

Will often likes to “bolt,” or hide, Kim explained, which means a trip to the grocery store or the mall can turn into a stress-filled situation for parents. But Kim expects their new four-legged service dog will help them keep track of Will, should his attention wander.

But most of all, the dog will be Will’s buddy, a friendly, nonjudgmental companion who will always be there for him.

Holbert looks forward to the day when Will meets his new friend.

“For us, it’s exciting and kind of like putting Christmas and adopting a baby together,” Holbert said. “It’s life changing, adding a family member who will make a significant difference in the life of a child.”

Editor’s note: Watch for an update on Will and his new friend in an upcoming blog post.

-Photo Credit: Feature image is Will Stoneburner with his family. Inset photo courtesy of Sarah Holbert, founder and CEO of CARES Inc.

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