“Everyday Hero” Award: Abby

ll pet owners can attest to the special role animals play in our everyday lives. For each of us, our pets are our heroes, and this year, Purina recognized one of these everyday heroes, as a reminder of the special relationship we have with our pets.

A pet can be a particular hero when they help their master face daily life challenges. This is the situation with a four-year-old Golden Retriever named Abby, who is trained as a service dog to be the constant companion of Kyle Wiltse, diagnosed with autism at age 3. She helps him cope with the often-overwhelming and confusing barrage of sensory input from everyday life.abby_hero

Kyle’s affliction made social interaction with others very difficult and impaired his communication skills. Autism made him stand out because of his unusual and repeated behavioural patterns, such as stimming (stereotyped and repetitive behaviour, a sort of stress-coping mechanism for autism-disabled people).

His mother, Jackie, obtained Abby through the National Service Dogs program when Kyle was 4 (he is now age 6). Abby’s companionship has helped Kyle bloom. As a sort of healing dog, Abby has helped him focus for longer periods, nudging Kyle when she senses him becoming overwhelmed. He talks to her and she responds with non-judgmental affection.

He is more at ease with other children. Children who once made fun of his odd behaviour, now, approach him when he is with Abby. With her by his side, Kyle is seen by others, not as a misbehaving child, but rather as a boy with special needs. Kyle is also safer since he no longer can bolt and run. He is tethered to Abby by a belt that attaches to her vest.

One winter night, Jackie thought Kyle was finally asleep and took a quick shower. But when she went in later to check on Kyle, she found her son had disappeared. She asked Abby to find him and the dog directed Jackie by barking ? which she rarely does ? to look outside. In the dark, Jackie saw Kyle, wearing only winter boots and a fleece jacket, put on upside-down, a few steps beyond some patio doors. On another occasion, Kyle became overwhelmed and confused by cars waiting at a busy four-way stop and sat down in the middle of the road. Abby quickly pulled Kyle from the road to safety.

Abby has had a tremendous impact on Kyle. He speaks more clearly and with more confidence. He is more self-confident and self-reliant. She has changed his life forever.