When the Hamels brought their new dog home two weeks ago, they weren't just introducing a new pet to their lives, they were introducing hope.
Their hopes were simple — that they could someday enjoy a peaceful restaurant meal or take a carefree walk along the river, activities they're missing because their autistic son is prone to disruptive behaviour and wandering.
"He can slip away like Houdini," says mom Chandelle. "Having that constantly weighing us down makes it really difficult to enjoy family moments."
The Hamels' hope comes in the form of a specially trained yellow lab named May — believed to be St. Albert's first autism service dog.
Brenan: still a boy
Brenan turns seven on Tuesday. He's considered moderate to severe on the scale of autism spectrum disorder, a neurological condition that affects how the brain processes information. People with autism typically have trouble communicating, have impaired social skills and exhibit strange behaviours.
Autism affects about one child in 150 and is four times more common in boys than girls, according to the Autism Society of Canada. Many autistic children are cold and detached, refusing physical contact even with their own parents. Brenan isn't like that.
"Brenan is very loving and very affectionate," Chandelle says. "He needs to constantly touch, hold our hands."
Although Brenan is highly intelligent, he doesn't speak. He communicates by touching pictures on an electronic device that produces audible words.
When he's calm, Brenan is like any other boy. He's quiet, loves music and swimming.
Even when he's agitated, Brenan doesn't have the violent temper tantrums some autistic children display. However, he does tend to be bouncy in public. At home, he feels the need to constantly touch the television, likes to jump off the window sills, and for the last several months, has been obsessed with destroying books.
"Some days they get sucked and pulled in so deeply inside of the autism that the world means nothing to them," Chandelle says. "Those are the days we work very hard to not allow him to withdraw into his own world."
Despite these efforts, the behaviours sometimes prevail.
"Some days are incredibly frustrating,"' Chandelle says. "I always say those are days when autism wins."
Call in the dogs
In Canada, the training of dogs to help autistic children began in 1996 with a Cambridge, Ont. organization called National Service Dogs. There are now a handful of organizations across the country that train autism dogs, including Edmonton's Dogs With Wings.
The non-profit has trained dogs for clients with sight, hearing or mobility issues since 1996 and added autism dogs in November 2007, about the time the Hamels applied. A year-and-a-half later, the family is the organization's ninth autism placement, and first in St. Albert.
Autism dogs serve three functions for their clients: safety, calming and companionship.
When out in public, the child holds a handle attached to the dog and is also attached by a tether. The dog is trained to anchor itself in place if the child bolts, as autistic children are prone to do.
"It keeps these kids from running out into traffic or into a dugout or something," says John Wheelwright, executive director of Dogs With Wings.
The dog can also be a calming influence that the child can rely on when feeling overwhelmed by outside stimuli or change.
"If the shopping carts at the local supermarket are in a different place, that'll send these kids right around the bend because things are different," Wheelwright says. "As the relationship between the child and the dog develops, you'll find the incidents of outbursts and wild behaviour are much reduced."
The third element the dogs provide is companionship. Most autistic children have trouble forming relationships with other people but not with animals, so their dog becomes a valued friend.
One challenging aspect of autism is that those affected look like everyone else, so people assume they are just poorly behaved, says Patricia Terrett, a family support worker with the Autism Society of Edmonton Area.
"The thing that I like about the dogs is it allows an otherwise invisible disability to become visible in the community," Terrett says. "People realize something is happening with this child that they can't see."
"They're going to cut the kid more slack."
There are between 150 and 200 children with autism dogs in Canada, estimates Wade Beatty of Autism Dog Services, another Cambridge organization credited with being a pioneer in the field. Beatty has placed dogs in more than 80 families.
"For all the kids that I've worked with, none of them have resented or not established some kind of a relationship with the dog," he says.
May: still a dog
Like all the dogs in the program, May started daily training at eight weeks old. During a year of general puppy obedience, her volunteer trainer exposed her to a vast sampling of human endeavour: sirens, elevators, escalators, restaurants, malls, construction sites, buses, trains.
"They have to be outgoing but they can't be flaky," Wheelwright says. "They have to be interested in the world around them but they have to stop and think as well."
Level-headed enthusiasm may sound like the opposite of puppy behaviour, but these dogs come from specialized breeders who have spent more than 20 years producing calm, unflappable pups, Wheelwright says.
It costs about $35,000 to train each dog but the client families get them for a dollar. In return, they try to generate publicity and encourage donations to the organization.
People tell the Hamels that May seems like an old dog, even with her work jacket off. It's true. Not yet two, she peers quizzically through wise eyes and sidles up to strangers as her tail slowly swishes.
But at her core she's still a dog and will bound after a stick like an uncultured coon hound, as Brenan's dad Marcel recently witnessed at the dog park.
"The jacket came off and she just exploded out of the trainer's hands, faster than I've ever seen," he says.
The family started preparing for May's arrival more than a year ago by hosting weekly visits from a pet therapy dog. In the beginning Brenan would run away when he saw the dog. By the end he would poke it with his finger.
After his own dog arrived on May 8, Brenan took an interest almost immediately.
"Within a day he was watching her and he was smiling when he looked at her," Chandelle says. "Within a couple days, he was already taking the initiative to walk up to her and pet her."
It could take six months to a year before May starts to fully apply her training with Brenan, depending how quickly they bond. Brenan's parents hope that May will eventually attend his classes at Keenooshayo Elementary and act as an unconditional friend to him as he advances toward the prime bullying years.
"She'll be okay with his quirkiness," Chandelle says.
The Hamels have already had successful family outings, with May wearing her blue service jacket and Brenan holding his handle. The calming effect has been obvious, particularly during a visit to a busy IKEA store.
"Brenan was eerie calm," Chandelle says. "Usually we're in a store and people notice Brenan because of his behaviours. Now they noticed him because of [May] and they smiled.
"We looked at each other and said: 'we know we made the right decision.'"