In a matter of seconds, Austin Mazon whips past his mother, running away from a group of people gathered in Mingo Creek County Park Sunday.
Austin’s mother, Michelle, takes off after him, fearful that he’ll run into the nearby creek.
Following close behind is Thunder, a 16-week-old German Shepherd.
Michelle eventually catches her son and brings him back to the group, as Thunder trots alongside them.
“He’s a runner,” Michelle said of her son. “He likes to get out of the house and run to the street. He’s pretty sneaky.”
Austin, 7, has autism. His new sidekick, Thunder, is being trained to alert family members when Austin bolts away and to track Austin, if needed.
Stephanie Feehan, owner of K-9s for KIDS, said Thunder did exactly what he was trained to do. In its third year, the Hickory-based K-9s for KIDS has placed dogs with at least 40 families who have a child with autism. For $5,000, families get a puppy and 12 months of training. That’s a fraction of the cost compared to other programs, Feehan said.
With the help of the Autism Center of Pittsburgh, Feehan said puppies are matched with a child when the pups are 8 weeks old. From there, the child is the only one allowed to provide water and feed the dog to help facilitate a close bond. At 12 weeks, Feehan said the puppies learn to track their “specific child.”
“We meet every Sunday for two hours (at the county park),” she said.
In addition to playing hide-and-seek, Feehan said the puppies are taught general obedience skills and to distract children from self-harming behavior.
Each year, Feehan said Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala pays the $5,000 cost for two families.
Barks and squeals can be heard as the group prepares to practice tracking skills. Patrick Ganley, 21, and his parents, Shelly and Mark, gladly make the trek from Crafton to Washington County each week. His parents said Patrick has been more mobile since he got his puppy, Baby Girl.
“She already takes care of him,” Shelly said.
The Ganleys said they can’t say enough about the program and would recommend it to anyone.
“It’s wonderful,” Mark said.
“It’s a great way to spend time together,” Shelly added.
Michelle Mazon said she learned of the program through another family involved with K-9s for KIDS. While the program already has been a big help to the Houston family, Mazon believes Thunder will have an even bigger effect on Austin.
“He’s nonverbal,” she said. “We’ve been going to therapy, and he’s come a long way. I think this will help him even more.”