Daniel Stirewalt and Autism Assist Dog Dory
Daniel Stirewalt of Crosby, Minn. can get frustrated and angry with small changes in his routine—like many young children do. Daniel has autism, however, and his reactions can become severe, including punching, hitting, yelling and screaming.
“Daniel’s frustration and irritability, even with minimal changes in his routine, can range from moderate to severe depending on the day,” his mother Leilani says.
To cope Leilani tried using tools such as a weighted vest and blankets to calm Daniel’s emotional meltdowns. These products have been shown to relieve anxiety by regulating the sensory system when overstimulated and create a sense of comfort. While they helped in some ways, Daniel was still having problems sleeping through the night, bolting in public, and socially interacting with others. When a friend told her about Can Do Canines, she wasted no time and applied.
After a three-year wait, Daniel was partnered with a two-year-old black Labrador retriever-mix named Dory. Now, instead of weighted blankets, Daniel has a furry, four-legged comfort system in the form of an Autism Assist Dog.
Dory is a very intuitive dog who can sense when Daniel is stressed. She reacts quickly, yet calmly, with a nudge from her nose or she’ll bound over and snuggle. During training, Dory’s foster family reported that she was steady in a number of challenging situations—lying quietly at restaurants and remaining calm in busy crowds. Her temperament perfectly complements Daniel and helps moderate his frustration throughout the day.
Before Dory, Daniel’s family used to have repeated difficulty shopping at Walmart. Daniel would become fixated on the wall of colorful fish in the pet section and the transition of leaving that part of the store always resulted in a meltdown. When the two began training, Leilani specifically wanted to practice going to Walmart, visiting the fish, and then leaving. When Walmart training day finally came, Leilani’s hopes were realized. Leilani told Daniel it was time to leave the fish and instead of a meltdown, Daniel cooperatively took hold of his handle on Dory’s cape and left the fish behind. A huge improvement on a historically difficult situation!
Sleep can be especially tough for kids with autism, and until recently Daniel was never able to sleep alone. With Dory, he sleeps through the night in his own bed, much to the delight of his mother. Dory also helps Daniel with transitions in and out of stores, and goes to therapy appointments with him—standing by if he needs help in a stressful situation.
They love to play ball together, and Daniel especially loves to take Dory for a walk around the block. Leilani says that the most enjoyable thing for her has been to watch the two of them bond. Daniel declares with great enthusiasm, “This is my dog! And nobody loves her more than me!”
Leilani anticipates that hospital, clinic and therapy visits will be a lot easier with Dory’s presence. She is extremely grateful for the time, energy and expense that has gone into Dory’s training and is hopeful for the future, saying, “Daniel wouldn’t be where he is right now without Dory. Training was a lot of work, but the benefit is worth it. She has helped him tremendously!”