There have been many reports about the benefits of therapy dogs for autistic children. A Denver Post report about a therapy dog, Clyde, being trained for 9-year-old Zack Tucker of Colorado Springs caught my eye. Clyde, a chocolate labrador, is being trained by an inmate at the Sterling Correctional Facility, convicted killer Christopher Vogt who interacts directly with Zack, who has Asperger’s Syndrome:
[Vogt's] dedication to animals and whose skill with people have earned him such trust in prison that he is allowed to interact directly with Zack as the two work together with the boy’s new dog.
Vogt gets so engrossed in his work that he assumes the roles of the people who will receive the service dogs he trains. Such role-playing helps him teach each animal how to respond to its future master.
In 2002, Vogt spent months in a wheelchair while training a dog to help him dress and retrieve things. He has pretended to be many other people, including a boy with cerebral palsy and a victim of rape. Now he acts as though he has autism.
Since Zack easily gets confused and then breaks down in tears of frustration, Vogt, in training Clyde, would regularly put his hands to his face and cry just as he was told Zack does. He has taught Clyde that when Zack does it, Clyde is to interrupt him by nudging him in the face with his nose.
Vogt was sentenced to 48 years in prison on a charge of second-degree murder in 1999 and is eligible for parole in 2018. He’s now become a certified master dog trainer, has taught other inmates to train dogs and has written two picture books for kids, one of which is titled “Your Four-Footed Friend.”
Zack’s parents paid $450 for Clyde and pay $50 to the Department of Corrections a month for the training, which is to take six months. They also have to take Zack to the prison, a 200-mile trip from their home and say they’re not worried about having a convicted killer like Vogt train their son to handle Clyde.
“I think he’s wonderful,” Tucker said. “He’s very attuned to Zack’s needs.”
The soft-spoken Vogt was as patient with Zack as he had been with Clyde in his cell. Zack eagerly followed Vogt’s instructions and never seemed distracted during the two-hour session. Zack tightly gripped Clyde’s leash in one hand and pointed with his index finger: “Clyde, sit.”
I’ve found Vogt’s training methods of interest. My own autistic son Charlie is wary but curious about dogs. As a friend who’s had many dogs pointed out to me, dogs probably notice that Charlie has some different ways of acting and communicating himself — for one thing, Charlie’s body language is a bit unusual as he sometimes stands and stares suddenly — and it would be important for a therapy dog to understand these as “just the usual,” rather than anything to be alarmed about.
Hope Clyde will be able to go home with Zack and his family soon.
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Photo by CowCopTim.