PALMYRA, Wis. - Those behind a budding nonprofit organization based in Palmyra know that beyond being man’s best friend, dogs can be trained to make a real difference.
Dogs in Vests is getting up on their feet, specifically training dogs to help children and young adults with autism.
The group is currently training two dogs: 1 1/2-year-old Ace, who will go to a young man in Appleton, and 13-week-old Buddy.
Buddy can be friends with anyone, but his bond with 12-year-old Maya Pykett will be special.
“It’s a unique bond children with autism and dogs seem to have,” said Paul Holt, executive director of Dogs in Vests.
"They were playing and running, and Maya's just, she's in love,” Maya’s mother, Sheila Pykett, said. “Who doesn't love a puppy?”
Maya suffers from medical issues like seizures.
"When you know she's not feeling well, you're scared,” her dad, Tim Pykett, said.
Maya’s autism adds another layer.
“With her sensory processing she doesn’t know when she doesn’t feel good,” Sheila Pykett said. "It's hard on all of us."
"We find the dogs really bring out their personalities,” Holt said, adding that his group is the only service dog provider in the area that specializes in dogs for autism. He began the nonprofit in 2017 after the son of a friend of his had a hard time getting a service dog to help with his autism.
The dogs are provided to families free of charge for ages 4 and up.
While Holt said the dogs aren't for every child with autism, they can be a perfect fit, providing assistence and safety in public places. He added that while making lasting friends can be hard for some with autism, it takes no words to build a relationship with the dogs.
“The children with autism create a special bond that's nonverbal, and many are nonverbal,” he said.
"(Buddy’s) just a great companion dog at all times," said volunteer puppy raiser Bob Washburn. "(These dogs) are very aware of where that person is, so they can keep track of them and keep them safe.”
Washburn is training Buddy in Madison to get him ready to be Maya's new side kick.
"He's just perfect. Absolutely zero problems with this one. I can't believe it. We'll need to knock on wood soon,” he said. "It's an overwhelmingly amazing feeling ... How can you not want to be a part of this kind of thing?"
🐶 Once Buddy the puppy is trained, he will be a service dog for 12-year-old Maya. If all goes well, she'll get her new friend for FREE thanks to Dogs in Vests out of Palmyra, which specializes in training dogs for young people with autism. 🐶 #news3now @WISCTV_News3 pic.twitter.com/4wB1Hd39CV— Madalyn O'Neill (@news3madalyn) October 9, 2019
"Maya's just a lover and a cuddler, so this will just be very, very nice … All through this, she just keeps smiling and chugging along, it’s amazing,” Sheila Pykett said. She and her husband hope Buddy will make her feel more comfortable outside her home.
"It does give us some peace of mind that Maya's going to have more freedom, independence,” Tim Pykett said.
Maya is looking forward to a friendly companion.
"Buddy's going to be a good dog,” Maya said.
Buddy still has about 1 1/2 years of training before he can live with Maya, and Ace has about six more months before he can head to his prospective owner. In the meantime, the dogs spend plenty of time with their future companions.
"It'll be so nice to know she's got this friend, this buddy, this companion,” Sheila Pykett said.
Holt said the group’s goal is to get three dogs in training by the end of the year and expand from there. They’re also looking for puppy raising volunteers. For more information, head to its website.
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