There’s a special skin pad on the bottom of Tiger the golden retriever’s paws that Lilly Bohan has named “The Rock”.
Lilly rubs The Rock for support, whether she’s stressed, overwhelmed, sad or just in relaxation mode. The slender 10-year-old girl gently runs her fingers across its spongy black surface and strokes the rust-colored fur around it during transitions that her severe autism make difficult, such as morning wakeups, bedtime and long car rides.
Tiger sits under Lilly’s chair during snacks and meals at her Virginia Beach, Virginia, home, often letting her rest her feet against his back. He goes with her to restaurants, the zoo, the park and the beach, or anywhere that crowds and noises can trigger meltdowns. He helps her to meet people for the first time, wait more patiently for tables at restaurants and not dart off at the beach, where before this summer her parents never brought chairs. They didn’t expect to stay long enough to really sit down.
Tiger is Lilly’s rock.
“He is very comforting to her,” says her father, Tommy Bohan. “He brings her down a level, so she can handle more things that are outside her own world. He draws her out of her room. She seeks him out and asks for him. He has made a tremendous difference not by entertaining her, but just by being at her side. He’s somebody who is just…there.”
Tiger, 2, has lived with the family since November 2014. The 65-pound dog—roughly the same size as Lilly—went through extensive training through Saint Francis Service Dogs, a Roanoke, Virginia-based organization that places dogs with families coping with a wide range of disabilities, including multiple sclerosis, paralysis, stroke, arthritis, brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.
The Bohans’ story reflects a truth for many families: for all the amazing tasks the dogs can do—turn lights on and off, pick up objects, summon medical help and even load grocery carts—their steady and quiet yet friendly presence is just as important. “He’s made Lilly happier, all of us happier,” says her mother, Saunders Bohan. “It’s hard not to smile when you see Tiger with her.”
Lilly and her twin sister, Sarah, were happy and playful babies who knew their alphabet, numbers, colors and animal names by age 2. When they went to preschool, however, their parents realized the girls didn’t have the same attention span or basic social skills as other children. Over the next two years, signs of trouble increased, especially for Lilly.
Something clicked in her brain,” Tommy Bohan recalls. “Sounds became irritating to her. She’d stick her fingers in her ears all the time. She began shying away from the group and doing her own thing. She lost the skills she had in a gradual way.”
At age 4, Lilly was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, a complex neurodevelopmental condition that interferes with communication and social interaction.
Today, Lilly speaks simple words and phrases to express her needs but isn’t conversational. She needs help with dressing and basic hygiene and is not fully potty trained. She tends to be reclusive and can become upset or distracted so quickly that her parents are constantly on high alert. “She may just decide to run,” Tommy Bohan says. “When she’s ready to go, there’s no stopping her. Or she could be oblivious and just start walking, and next thing you know she’s a half mile away without realizing it.”
Sarah is also on the autism spectrum, but her symptoms are not as severe; she is in a special education classroom at a local public school rather than a regional school for children with special needs, where Lilly
is a fourth-grader. The Bohans’ youngest child, 7-year-old Carolyn, is neurotypical.
Determined to help his daughters, Tommy Bohan began researching service dogs online about 2½ years ago. He and Saunders Bohan were nervous—they hadn’t had a dog since before they were married—but committed to extensive, exhausting training through Saint Francis, including 10 straight days in Roanoke, Virginia, for Tommy Bohan, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and multiple sessions with trainers who came to Virginia Beach. They learned the 40-odd commands that Tiger responds to, how to correct their dog, their legal rights and how to navigate all kinds of public settings. They will continue to have annual training tests and visits to Roanoke to keep Tiger’s skills up to date.
In Roanoke, Tommy Bohan and Lilly “interviewed” three dogs, two black Labs plus Tiger, as a handful of Saint Francis representatives watched. “There were a lot of people in the room, which upset her,” Tommy Bohan recalls. Her disposition changed dramatically when the dogs came into the room, especially Tiger: “He was definitely the one she responded to the best.” (Children with autism often prefer the feel of soft versus wiry coats, according to Saint Francis).
The bond between human and dog takes time to deepen. A year after meeting Tiger, Lilly now counts on him at wakeups and bedtime, when she gets on and off the school bus and during meals, when he helps her sit still longer. He can’t go with her to school—she isn’t trained to handle him solo—but travels on other outings that will last more than about 30 minutes. He’s been to the grocery store, Home Depot and the Virginia Zoo, and he rode at Lilly and Sarah’s feet during a road trip to Atlanta, Georgia.
On a recent Saturday, the family went to a local pizzeria and found it packed with kids who had just finished playing baseball games. Before Tiger, the Bohans probably wouldn’t have risked a meltdown by waiting for a table. Instead, Lilly buried her toes in the dog’s fur and stroked The Rock, and by the time the family got a table and ate, they’d been at the restaurant for 90 minutes. “That is unheard of,” Saunders Bohan says. “If we had been there for half that time, it would have shattered a record for us.” She pauses. “It’s a small thing for other families, but not for us.”
A few days later, Lilly was at home, buried in silence on her iPad, when her parents asked her to greet an unfamiliar visitor. She balked. “Just pet Tiger,” Tommy Bohan prompted. Lilly, gripping a red Popsicle, peeked around the corner, her dark hair falling across her pale cheeks. “Come see Tiger,” her dad encouraged. And then Lilly was in the room, nestled on her father’s lap, reaching behind her to rest a hand on Tiger’s neck. She didn’t make eye contact or speak, but for a few minutes, she was there.
Mental and Physical Benefits
Children with autism often have a heightened sense of touch and find comfort from petting dogs, pressing against them or getting licked, according to Cabell Youell, executive director of Saint Francis. The goal is to prevent major tantrums and reduce repetitive behaviors, such as arm flapping, rocking or self-injury, when kids get over-stimulated; dogs are taught to give subtle body bumps to interrupt such movements. Dogs also can ease loneliness, depression and anxiety, boost confidence and even model some life skills. “We want to see Lilly bloom—to interact and smile and laugh more,” Youell says.
Tiger is trained to play hide-and-seek, a simple yet therapeutic game that can bring Lilly out of her solitary world. He can clean up his toys on command—“get it” and “put it in” a bin—a skill that Lilly can begin to copy. He’s used to walking on two leashes, so a parent can hold one and Lilly the other, in hopes of keeping her from wandering (if she does bolt, Tiger will freeze in place with a single command so an adult can chase her.). He’s educating her on empathy and patience as she learns how to handle him gently and watches how calmly he waits (he won’t even eat his own food without a verbal cue).
In public, a dog wearing a service vest also can impact perceptions of Lilly and others with an unseen disability.
It alerts people that something is going on—that a child isn’t just acting out or being a ‘brat,’” Youell says.
“It gives the parents a little more room and consideration.” If someone is in a wheelchair, people tend to engage with a dog rather than quickly look away to avoid staring, she adds: “The person in the wheelchair stops feeling invisible.”
Saint Francis dogs, which cost about $25,000 to train but come free to families, perform specific tasks for each person. For a young veteran with a brain injury and balance issues: open doors, carry grocery bags, tug laundry to the washer and pick up car keys or a cane, so he feels more independent. For an 18-year-old woman in a wheelchair: retrieve a phone and tug the chair to an outlet if needed, so she never gets trapped somewhere without battery power again. For a man with Lou Gehrig’s disease: know how to get help so he’s not terrified of venturing out alone and growing exhausted.
Like most dogs, Tiger behaves differently with his red service vest on. “He knows he’s working. He’s more reserved,” Tommy Bohan says. When the vest comes off at home, he loves playing fetch and running around the yard, especially with Carolyn.
Tiger is affectionate with everyone in the family; in fact, he insists on checking on all three girls at bedtime and has helped Sarah deal with her autism as well. But the Bohans see how his gentle brown eyes seek out Lilly, how he won’t move when she needs The Rock. “He reaches her in a way that we—and maybe any person—can’t,” Saunders Bohan says. One dog can’t work miracles. Or maybe he can: this summer, the Bohans are packing beach chairs.