Training service dogs for people with autism, anxiety, PTSD

Local nonprofit Heroes, Horses and Hounds trains rescues to be service animals for people with autism, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

  • Baloo, named after the bear in “The Jungle Book,” was one of two from his litter who was good at performing service tasks. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Sixteen-year-old Zoë Vorce’s anxiety used to derail family plans, says her mother, but since receiving her service dog, Baloo, Zoe talks about everything she’s excited to do. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Zoë Vorce, 16, of Orange, with her new service dog, Baloo. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Zoë Vorce’s father, David Vorce, shakes a paw with his daughter’s new service dog, Baloo, at Heroes Boarding and Training. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • David Vorce of Orange and his daughter, Zoë Vorce, 16, with her new service dog Baloo. Trainer Jessica Mattson at Heroes Boarding and Training in Whatley works with them. Staff Photos/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 5/20/2019 4:36:24 PM

There was a time when Zoë Vorce of Orange couldn’t bear to walk into a crowded gymnasium.

A time when social anxiety prevented her from going shopping and a trip to the movies was basically out of the question. That was just a few weeks ago, before Vorce and her family were given Baloo, a trained service dog.

Vorce’s father, David, immediately noticed a difference.

“She’s happy. She’s laughed more in these past couple weeks than in a long time,” he said of his 16-year-old daughter, who beamed with delight at even the slightest glance of her new four-legged friend. “She goes into a lot of the stores now without a problem.”

The dog came to the Vorce family as a donation from Heroes, Horses and Hounds (HHH), a Sunderland-based nonprofit organization that takes in rescue dogs and horses and retrains them to be service animals for people with autism, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. Occasionally, the organization donates service animals to families in need.

The organization has also placed a dog named Frank with a family in South Hadley. The family’s 3-year-old son, who has autism, is a flight risk, and Frank has been trained to block the child from running away into danger. HHH Founder and President Colleen Campbell said that people with autism are often triggered by sensory overload.

HHH has donated roughly 15 service dogs since it was founded about four years ago. Whenever the group acquires a dog, an evaluation is conducted to determine the animal’s temperament, trainability, size and ability to perform tasks that mitigate a disability.

“It’s been proven that it (requires) more of a personality trait than a breed trait to be a service dog,” Campbell said.

Baloo, named after the bear in “The Jungle Book,” was one of two from his litter who was good at performing service tasks. “His mom was a shelter dog from the South. She was in a kill shelter and we took her up (north). She was very pregnant. He was born at my home not too long after she arrived,” Campbell said.

David Vorce said Baloo gives his family a sense of freedom that was previously difficult to achieve. He said Zoë now enjoys shopping at North Quabbin Commons in Athol and once even went to the movies at the Athol Cinemas 8 there.

“(Baloo) makes everything easier. Going out places isn’t a problem,” David said. “(Zoë) is always happy.”

Life for the Vorce family has been so positively altered that David’s wife, Heidi, sent HHH a handwritten letter to express gratitude, with a healthy dose of self-deprecating humor. Heidi Vorce detailed how it would always break her heart to see Zoë reduced to tears of disappointment and defeat whenever her anxiety would disrupt the family’s plans. Heidi said Zoë now talks about everything she is excited to do.

“Thank you so much for giving my baby this gift,” Heidi wrote. “Not only a service dog but the courage to try again. I could not speak these words to you, because I will cry, and I am the world’s ugliest crier,” she wrote, adding, “Thank you from my whole heart.”

Jessica Mattson, HHH’s canine coordinator and lead trainer, was introduced to the world of service animals 20 years ago, when her son, Mikael, was born with autism. A service dog for an autistic child came with a seven-year wait and a $25,000 price tag, so Mattson got certified in training a canine.

“I did not have $25,000, nor was I willing to wait seven years,” she said recently.

She began researching how to evaluate and train service dogs to perform tasks for people with disabilities other than vision impairment. She read every book she could find on dog training and she observed various trainers to explore different methods of training. After more than two years of researching, Mattson felt confident enough to start the search for a puppy for Mikael. It took her a few months and many evaluations before she found Rizzo, an 8-week-old puppy at a rescue shelter. That was 14 years ago. “And she has been working with and for Mikael since. She is retired in our eyes, but not hers,” Mattson said.

“Without Rizzo, my son would not have developed into the man he is today. She supports him when he is trying to navigate the complexities of social interactions by giving deep pressure as well as providing space between him and others, reducing his anxiety and increasing his social capabilities.”

It took about two years to train Rizzo.

Over the past two decades, Mattson has seen with her own eyes the unique power of service dogs. “They’re life-changing,” she said.

Mattson said service animals also work wonders for veterans and other people with PTSD, which is unpredictable and can be triggered by sights, sounds or smells. She said dogs can read a person’s biomechanics — such as heavy breathing, increased heart rate and heightened blood pressure — and guide them out of a particular situation.

Mattson explained she is Campbell’s business partner.

“She is the magician who does all the important stuff, and she works with horses as well,” she said of Campbell. “I just get to play with the dogs and fun people. She does a lot of the bookkeeping and makes the world go round.”

HHH gets funding a few different ways — mostly through donations, companion and service dog adoptions. The organization has won two grants and intends to apply for more.

“Since donations go directly to the care of animals and training of service dogs the more money we receive the more animals we save,” Campbell said. “At this time, we are staffed entirely by volunteers.”

How to connect

For more information, visit HHH has planned a fundraiser called Heroes, Horses and Hounds’ Mutt Strutt for June 22. It will begin at 59 State St. in Belchertown and last from 1 to 4 p.m. Campbell described The Mutt Strutt as a dog- and family-friendly walkathon. People will be able to walk as individuals or form teams to help raise money for the two service puppies in training who were donated to two children with autism. “We are looking to raise $20,000 to cover the costs of both puppies so the families don’t have to pay anything out of pocket,” she said.

Adults are $10 and youth (10 to 18 years old) are $5. Children 10 and younger are free. Families are $20.

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