His calm, canine companion: La Jolla family with autistic son finds hope (and help) in assistance dog

By Ashley Mackin

Shelley and Claudio Lana of La Jolla have an unpredictable life and they have to be prepared for anything. Their 9-year-old son, Otto, has autism, and the high social anxiety that comes with it, and is non-verbal. Thankfully, they also have Cara, a dog they were paired with through Canine Companions for Independence.

“Cara gives him a sense of calm,” Otto’s mother Shelley Lana said. “He has a lot of anxiety in going to different places and if something is not part of his routine, that is really hard for him. Even at the grocery store, no two trips are the same – someone could be in line or they could be out of his favorite juice – and all that causes anxiety.”

But having Cara is a constant for Otto when things change or could change. For example, his mother said, “Restaurants are really hard for him, but we can take her with us to a restaurant and she will lay down under the table — even if we are eating steak right in front of her.”

Katie Malatino, public relations coordinator for the southwest region of Canine Companions for Independence said a calm temperament is crucial for a service dog in the program. “They need to be well socialized, have a good work ethic, be affectionate, family-friendly, not be startled or reactive to sudden movements or sounds,” she said.

The dogs are trained from birth to have these traits. Malatino said Canine Companions for Independence has its own breeding program. At eight weeks old, the dogs go to a “puppy raiser,” where they remain for a year and a half.

“The puppy raiser’s chief responsibility is socialization and basic training (sit, stay, heel),” she said. “Socialization involves taking the puppy out in public to get them used to whatever they might come across with their human partners. They take them to movie theaters, offices, public transportation, grocery stores, you name it.”

After an additional six months of daily training, the dogs are paired with a person in need. The dogs are given to the families free of charge, but the family is responsible for any subsequent costs — grooming, veterinary bills, toys, etc. In Otto’s case, the match was a slow process. Lana said Otto was, at one point, afraid of dogs, but she wanted to try anything and everything to ease her son’s daily life.

She said when the family finally got the call there was a dog for them — after five years on the waiting list — they had to attend a training seminar in Oceanside to familiarize themselves with the dog and vice versa.

One day during the training, Otto was laying down watching a movie when Lana asked if he would be OK with the dog on the bed. He nodded yes.

“Cara laid on the bed and moved incrementally and very slowly toward him,” Lana said. “Over five minutes, she probably moved six inches, so as not to scare him. When she got closer, he just touched her nose and she didn’t do anything. She didn’t lick him or anything. Then he giggled and that was it. It was such a defining moment.”

Cara has been with the Lana family since February, and has already given Otto a sense of comfort and empowerment. He has a touch-screen with a touch-and-talk program that he uses to verbalize commands for Cara and be a part of her daily life.

The program has a directory of pictures that correlate with a word or command. When pressed, the touch-screen will verbalize that word and form sentences. There are icons representing words such as ‘sit,’ ‘food’ and ‘come here,’ and Lana said Cara is still getting used to the computerized voice.

The touch-screen also has his teacher’s pictures and partial sentences so he can communicate at his school in Mission Valley. Under the “I want” and “to eat” buttons, “cookie” is on there twice — just in case.

Although the touch-screen has helped, the “best therapy” for Otto has been Cara, his mother reports. “He has a ton of energy and looks like any other 9-year-old, but when he needs to feel calm, he has Cara.”

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