XENIA, Ohio — Shanna Niehaus wasn’t sure how her 5-year-old son, Kai, was going to react. Kai was ninth in line to meet his new Autism Assistance Dog, a Golden Lab named Tornado.
The entire Niehaus family had traveled from Japan to Ohio for this moment. They had raised over $15,000 for this moment. They had waited over a year since Kai’s autism diagnosis for this moment.
It was spectacular.
Kai jumped out of his mother’s lap and ran straight to Tornado when the dog entered the room. “Tornado! Tornado!” Kai yelled. Kai led Tornado and the dog trainer back to their area. Kai immediately began petting and snuggling with Tornado. This was only the first day and things were going well.
The Niehaus family will spend the next two weeks learning about their new service dog, Tornado, while Tornado learns about Kai. Tornado was born and trained at 4 Paws for Ability. The Ohio organization trains and places quality, task trained service dogs with children with disabilities and veterans who have lost use of limbs or hearing.
Karen Shirk, CEO and founder of 4 Paws, explained that each of their service dogs “are born at our facility and are carefully bred.” Training begins the instant the dogs are born and are fully trained within 12 and 16 months of age.
Kai was diagnosed with autism when he was 4 years old. His mother, Shanna, says they knew from his behavior that Kai connected with animals more than people. “When you see a child connecting, you go in that direction,” Shanna said. She and her husband did research on service animals for Kai and found the 4 Paws program. “When I was reading through the testimonials of other families, it just felt right,” Shanna remembered.
The lengthy application process included letters, medical forms and videos of Kai in various social situations. Once Kai was accepted for a service dog, the family had to raise money on behalf of 4 Paws to fund the dog’s training. Shanna held fundraising events, auctions of her personal artwork, and did everything she could to raise the funds. Once they raised the money, a dog was trained specifically for Kai and his needs.
Tornado was born Aug. 25, 2015, and immediately began training for skills necessary for Kai’s well-being.
Tornado was trained for companionship, since children on the autism spectrum sometimes have a hard time making and maintaining social relationships. “Tornado is potentially Kai’s new best friend,” says Shanna. Tornado is also trained in behavior disruption. “If we’re in a public setting and Kai is feeling overwhelmed or anxious or exhibiting less than desirable behaviors, Tornado can intercept behaviors for him so it doesn’t reach the point of endangering himself,” explains Shanna.
Tornado is also trained for tethering. “The dog wears a harness and the child wears a special harness where they are tethered together,” Shirk explains. “The child can walk freely but can only get about 2-3 feet away from the dog.” This helps keep the child safe in public places. “There is no moment in a parent’s life that is more terrifying than when you can’t find your child and they may not be able to communicate with the outside world,” Kai’s mother says.
Once Tornado’s training was complete, the Niehaus family went to meet Tornado. Shanna was hopeful that Kai would connect with Tornado, but she didn’t expect the immediate connection.
Just hours after meeting the dog, Kai did something no one expected. “Kai, on his own accord, laid on Tornado and felt his heartbeat. He laid on top of him which is a sensory thing,” Shanna explained. “I was so taken aback and I was so flooded, how real and how raw and the significance of this really overwhelmed me.” Shanna began to cry, but covered her mouth so she didn’t make a sound and possibly distract Kai. “I couldn’t believe what I had hoped would happen was actually happening.”
Shanna says her son has always wanted a connection with somebody, but he doesn’t know how to get it. She says Kai has tried so many times, but between failed social attempts and bullying, it has been very hard for him emotionally. “He has the kindest, most tender heart,” Shanna says.
“He’s wanted to give and share and receive from someone else, and Tornado was the avenue that unlocked it,” she says.