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My 5-year-old-son, Matthew, is a little Houdini," says Sharon Lindsey, a single stay-at-home mom from Normal, Illinois. "He can -undo any lock and get outside if you take your eyes off him for even a minute." He has actually gone missing on several scary occasions. "-Because he has autism he has no sense of danger," Lindsey explains. "It's a huge worry, since we live near a busy street." And until recently Matthew's 9-year-old sister, Lauren, who is also autistic, had the opposite problem: She was terrified of strangers and often refused to leave the house, even just to play in her own backyard.
Then, two years ago, the family got Brock, an autism service dog, and life improved dramatically. Matthew used to have up to 25 tantrums a day and would get so upset that he'd bang his head against the wall or pull out his own hair. But Brock is trained to watch for signs of an impending meltdown. "If the kids are crying or distressed, Brock will gently nuzzle them until they calm down," Lindsey says. Now Matthew is down to three or four milder outbursts a week. Brock has done wonders for Lauren, too, helping her feel confident enough to go to birthday parties and even summer camp. "The kids think she's cool, because she's allowed to bring a dog to activities like reading night," Lindsey says.
When the family went shopping Matthew used to wander away and Lauren would panic at the sight of strangers. Now Matthew is safe in public, tethered to Brock with a special harness, and Lauren is more relaxed -- she calls Brock her protector. "The changes in both of them are amazing," Lindsey marvels. "They're different kids."
Although doctors predicted Matthew would never speak, these days he's talking in complete sentences and reading at a first-grade level. Lindsey feels that Brock calms him down enough that he can learn better. One of Matthew's first full sentences was directed to Brock: "I love you."
Last winter Matthew slipped out of the house again while Lindsey was taking a shower. Brock, who is trained in search and rescue, helped her find him two blocks away. Lindsey was overwhelmed with joy and relief. "It's so wonderful to have Brock because he's on duty 24/7."
Meet three clever canines who found their calling later in life.
Leo, one of the pit bulls rescued from Michael Vick's dog-fighting operation, was trained for battle. Then he was adopted by Marthina McClay, founder of Our Pack, a rescue organization in Los Gatos, California. McClay could see that he had a softer side. Now Leo's a therapy dog who comforts cancer patients in health clinics. "It takes your mind off your illness," says Ruth Adams, 80, from Sunnyvale, California, who is in remission from leukemia. "He's a survivor -- just like me."
Ricochet was raised to be a service dog but when she began chasing birds she had to be retired. "I still wanted her to do something meaningful," says her owner, Judy Fridono. Just for fun, the San Diego native taught the dog to surf, and now "Rip Curl Ricki" rides waves to raise money for local charities -- nearly $18,000 so far. What's more, a video about her went viral on YouTube. "I wanted her to help just one person," Fridono says. "Instead, she's touched thousands and thousands of lives."
Ciela started life as a pet who was trained to compete in Frisbee competitions. But surprisingly, her greatest gift lay elsewhere. Ciela was almost two when owner Theresa Brantly, who has epilepsy, discovered that the Aussie mix could predict seizures. Now, with Ciela by her side, the veterinary technician from Lilburn, Georgia, can live worry-free. Even better, Brantly's having fewer episodes. "Knowing Ciela will warn me hours in advance really cuts my stress level. It's a huge load off my mind."
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, April 2010.