The Power of Pets

Sam the Poodle Helps Elias and His Family Deal with Autism

Elias Ochoa and his therapy dog, Sam.

Dr. Judy Yang believes in the power of pets, especially when it comes to reaching out to an autistic child. While animal-assisted therapy is still a novel approach, there is increasing evidence that it can be helpful in specific conditions such as autism. To illustrate, Dr. Yang points to Sam the Poodle and his young master, Elias, as proof positive.

Elias Ochoa was 6 when his mother, Sarah, first took him to see Dr. Yang. He’d been diagnosed at an early age with autism, and his mother had already done a lot of research. “I was looking for a different treatment plan,” says Sarah Ochoa, “and Dr. Yang was very supportive from the start.”

She wanted a service dog to bond with her oldest son, because she’d read about how autistic children who interact with animals have shown positive social behaviors when the animal is present. But the price was cost-prohibitive. “They wanted between $7,000 to $15,000 for a fully trained service dog,” says Sarah. “So I decided we’d try training a dog ourselves.”

It was a courageous decision, given that she and her husband, Joshua, had three other children, all younger than Elias, including Gianna who was only six-months old at the time. “We were raising two babies at once,” she chuckled.

Sam, a black standard poodle, was the calmest, quietest dog from his litter and he and Elias hit it off from the start.

Before Sam arrived, Elias had a habit of rocking. “If he got really upset, he’d hit his head against a wall. All sorts of things could trigger it, such as loud noise. He’d scream and run all over the place,” remembers his mother. “But once we got Sam, Elias wasn’t so scared. Sam was like his security blanket. If Elias started to get nervous, Sam would come and sit on his lap or lay on him. The weight and warmth would calm him down.”

Before Sam, Elias rarely spoke. “He could say a few words, but he would rarely say anything to me,” remembers Sarah. “Then one day, I was walking down the hall and I heard his voice. I peeked into the room and he was talking to Sam! He was making an effort to communicate.”

The family, which recently moved from Vacaville to Texas, encourages other families with autistic children to consider a therapy dog. “Sam has made a big different to us. But if they can’t afford it, and they want to try training the dog themselves, I’d support it 100 percent, but with a warning,” says Sarah. “It’s not easy. It’s a huge investment of time and energy. You have to be consistent with your training and not give up.”

Dr. Judy Yang with Tatiana Butler, 4, and Mr. Bingley.

“Service and therapy animals can help children with significant mental health or developmental issues. These animals need to be specifically trained to manage these behaviors, especially in those with unpredictable and/or explosive tendencies, in order to keep both family members and the animal safe,” says Dr. Yang. “A regular house pet cannot take on this role without appropriate and adequate training.”

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