During a late-night internet search 10 years ago, Terri Wible opened a link that changed the course of her life and the lives of her two children.
That life-changing link was for an organization in Oregon that provided service dogs for people who have special needs, including those with autism, like Wible’s children.
In 2004, Wible and her husband, Ken, adopted their daughter, Adriana, now 15. That year they also adopted their son, Craig, now 14. Both children were infants at the time. While in kindergarten, Adriana was diagnosed with autism, and Craig was diagnosed with the disorder three years ago.
“When Adriana was diagnosed, we knew we had challenges ahead,” said Wible, who lives in Lee’s Summit. “She was angry all the time and I was trying to figure out something to help her.
“At the time, a friend of mine had a gentle mare and offered to let Adriana ride her. Within 10 minutes on that horse, she was smiling and laughing. That’s when I saw animals would be key to a positive future for her.”
After that successful first ride, Adriana began a professional equine therapy program. However, the therapy became too costly and Wible had to search for other options.
“I researched everything under the sun. The night I found the dogs in Oregon, I’d typed in ‘animal therapy’ instead of ‘horse therapy’ and dog therapy groups popped up,” Wible said. “I knew this was going to work for my daughter.”
The Wibles made a trip to the West Coast and brought back Adriana’s service dog, Grady.
“The first night we had Grady was the first night Adriana slept through the night since we adopted her,” Wible said.
As she watched her daughter’s transformation, Wible decided she wanted to help other families in the Midwest facing similar struggles. In 2010, she launched PAWS4Autism, an all-volunteer organization that specializes in training dogs for young people who have psychological and developmental challenges, as well as PTSD and serious health issues.
“When we first started, it was all very ‘Kumbaya.’ I wanted to spread the word and help people raise money for their service dogs,” Wible said.
Within a short time, the group had expanded their services to include consultation and a Canine Assisted Social Skills in Education (CASSIE) program in partnership with area schools. Then, in 2012, two families asked Wible if she would train service dogs for their children.
A former elementary and special education teacher, Wible was initially reluctant. But in response to the need she saw, she studied and became a certified dog trainer. In 2015, PAWS4Autism’s first service dog graduated and dozens more have completed the program since.
PAWS dogs, all standard poodles because of their hypoallergenic attributes, begin training with Terri at 8weeks old.
“The most crucial window is between 8 and 20 weeks,” she said. “The socialization eliminates most of the fear factors that may develop later in training.”
Following that initial few months, the dogs begin 3-month rotations with different foster trainers. Each trainer has a unique forte and together they provide a wide spectrum of experiences the dogs will need for life on the job. PAWS dogs may spend a rotation in a school or work setting. Or, they might live with a family that has toddlers or a child with non-verbal autism.
Danielle Halstead is a foster trainer and, like Wible, also has two children with autism.
The Halsteads’ son, Jace, 7, was diagnosed with autism three years ago and struggles with sensory issues elopement, which is the need to run or wander. Like Wible, Halstead also researched therapy dogs for autism online and discovered PAWS4Autism in the process.
In 2016, she began volunteering as a PAWS foster trainer and has completed eight rotations with dogs, including Jace’s own therapy dog, Ryder. Also a community outreach coordinator for the organization, Halstead’s training forte is public exposure and experience for the dogs.
From grocery store runs to public events, Halstead’s foster dogs accompany her and her family nearly everywhere.
“When we started fostering, our first dog was named Bentley,” Halstead said. “Jace was non-verbal when Bentley came, but within a few weeks he was calling Bentley by his name.”
When Ryder arrived, the bond between this particular foster dog and Jace was immediate and deep, Halstead said. That connection has become the open door for Ryder to help Jace through difficult moments.
“When Jace has sensory or elopement issues, Ryder will nudge him to try and get him to sit down. The dog’s main goal is to get Jace 100% focused and back to what he needs to do,” Halstead said.
“Before Ryder, we couldn’t do public things without my son eloping. It’s a night and day difference.”
Looking ahead, Wible’s goal is continue growing PAW4Autism. Currently, the group has waiting lists for service dogs and the school programs they offer.
Once funds are raised, Wible plans to build a training facility where those who are, and are not, developmentally challenged can study and become certified through the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers. Once certified, the trainers will be eligible for employment through PAWS or elsewhere in the dog training industry.
“I know about autism,” Wible said. “I have two autistic kids and I know what it’s like to have no hope or light at the end of the tunnel.
“That’s why I’m able to give back the way I do, because I have walked the walk, and I don’t want people to feel alone. These dogs provide independence and hope for better futures.”