Puppy love: A very special bond

Puppy love A very speci

October 31, 2009 23:34

The scene: A small park near Tel Aviv's Ben-Yehuda Street, just off Mapu Street. The date: A sunny afternoon last Sunday, October 25. "Sit!" Yariv, the dog-trainer commands sternly in English, stressing the "t" and making a bold gesture with his hand. "Sit!" the young man, Eran Picker, repeats, mimicking the body language as well. Sure enough. Spot, the cool collie, sits obediently. "Good girl!" Yariv says, beaming. "Good Spot!" Eran says, grinning broadly, rewarding Spot with a few small pieces of what his mother calls "schnitzel" from a specially-made bag. After a strenuous running exercise together through the park ("Run, run!"), accompanied by loud screams and sweeping gestures, Yariv coaches Eran to say "Down!" emphatically, and they all sit down. "And now kiss!" Yariv says. "Kiss!" Eran repeats, and gives Spot a smooch on the mouth. "And now one piece. One kiss, one piece!" Yariv declares, nudging Eran to give Spot another piece of food. "We made that up ourselves," he tells me proudly. "It just came out nicely: One kiss, one piece. One piece, one kiss!" To the casual observer, it looks like your normal dog-training session, ala Barbara Woodhouse, for those who still remember that classic British television series. But if you care to take a closer look, this is no simple Sunday afternoon stroll through the park. Yariv Ben-Yosef, Israel's top expert who is director of the Center for Service and Therapy Dogs, has spent the nine months since Spot's birth at the Sha'ar Hagay Kennel near Jerusalem training her especially for Eran. After being on the waiting list for three years, Eran, 19, who has severe autism, has recently come to Israel from Australia with his Israeli-born mother, Elisheva, and South African-born father, Kevin, to meet the Collie that is to become his lifelong companion. They had made a special trip here previously just to meet Yariv and tell him what they were looking for, and the puppy cost them a lot of money (they prefer not to recall exactly how much). Spot moved in to their new Tel Aviv apartment just three days before, but I can already see that she and Eran have begun to "connect," and are in the process of what Elisheva calls "bonding." They spend most of the day together, and in a short space of time, according to Yariv, they will be an inseparable pair. Eran has learned to tie the leash around Spot's collar, and walk together with her on his left side (for better control) on the sidewalk. From the first night, Elisheva says, they have been sleeping together in the same double bed. "Her calm makes him calm," Elisheva says. "On Shabbat you should have seen Eran lying on Spot. It was all so natural, and he's never even had a dog before!" When they return to Australia early next year, she happily tells me, Spot will get a seat on the plane next to Eran. Eran, by the way, responds only to what his mother terms "pre-recorded English," but Elisheva and Yariv are more comfortable speaking to me in Hebrew, and I have loosely translated their remarks. "The whole enterprise is a very expensive and complicated affair," Elisheva says, soberly. "We're even going to fly Yariv to Australia periodically." "There's really no price tag on this kind of thing," Yariv says. "My ultimate goal is to create a harmony between the child and the dog... so that they become responsible for each other, and independent from others." Elisheva and Kevin are paying for all the expenses themselves, and they admit it's costing a small fortune. Among other things, there are the training fees, food, trips to Israel and the costs of their homes in Melbourne and Tel Aviv. They are proud parents, and want to do it alone. In Melbourne, Eran and Elisheva work in an online book shop that they own. Kevin is an accountant. "This was Kevin's idea from the start," Elisheva says. "He read this wonderful book about an autistic boy and a dog, and he did some investigation. And he discovered that Israel was the place to come to." "Israel is the world leader in the field," Yariv states authoritatively. "The level, the quality of the training here is much higher than the rest of the world." In the last 16 years, he and his dedicated team of dog trainers (who currently number six) have trained "hundreds" of dogs (he can't say exactly how many) for "special needs groups," which include autistic children and others with developmental disabilities, injuries and illnesses who live all over Israel. As of now, Yariv says, they are training 50 to 60 dogs in locations across the country. Yariv likes to start matching children with dogs at the impressionable but mature age of 12. "Eran has started relatively late," he says, adding that this is the first time that an extensive pairing will be achieved with an adult autistic person. Elisheva boasts that Yariv, who is somewhat modest himself, has trained dogs for dozens of autistic children, some of whom also develop epilepsy, from around the globe, including Germany and the US. He is regarded as the pioneer in training dogs for people with Alzheimer's as well. He is credited with being the first in the world, together with social worker Daphna Golan-Shemesh, to train a dog specifically to aid Alzheimer's patients a decade ago. (It is called the Alzheimer's Aid Dog.) "Besides being a constant companion and reducing their stress levels," Yariv says, "the dogs can actually save someone's life." He drives from his home outside of Tel Aviv to visit Eran every day, and Eran takes Spot for a walk four times a day. The whole process is still very new for all parties, and they are still experiencing teething problems. Spot still hasn't learned, for example, that she should "do her business" (the instruction Eran is being taught is: Bizzy! Bizzy!") only at Eran's instructions. A "love" relationship between a dog and a boy can blossom in a period of just three to four weeks, Yariv says. "Eventually, the idea is for the two of them to do almost everything together... living together and doing things together like going to work, or out to play a ball game or walking to the store to buy eggs." The program is roughly based on the operant conditioning made famous by Pavlov and his dogs, but Yariv has introduced his own unique program of a daily schedule with "structured activity" to suit each unique pair. He even uses a bell which chimes loudly throughout the Pickers' apartment at set times. As soon as Spot hears the bell, she walks straight to Eran, who is invariably playing on his computer in his bedroom, and he rewards her with a biscuit. "This particular breed of collie is especially suited to autistic people," Yariv says. "The female, especially, is essentially a herd dog. It's very maternal and very sensitive, and the dogs can initiate things by themselves." "The dog can initiate?" I ask. "Yes, initiate!" Yariv says, emphatically. "If Spot wants to go for a walk, for example, she will find a way to communicate this to Eran, perhaps by howling or perhaps by bringing him her leash and scratching his leg." This is no easy process. For Yariv, it's a full-time job, but one for which he clearly has a calling. He has studied the field around the world as well as taught himself innovative techniques to help autistic children, and every new dog and child present a unique challenge. Once he is involved, Yariv will go to the end of the world for his children and dogs, even to Australia. For Kevin and Elisheva, it has been like acquiring a new member of the family, although they have received very strict guidelines about keeping their distance from Spot. "She's Eran's dog," Elisheva explains. "I'm not supposed to stroke or cuddle her. That's for him to do. One day, we hope that Eran and Spot will be able to live together by themselves, independently from us." She smiles optimistically. Elisheva has the same infectious smile as her son, which in his case she is quick to point out is also his way of covering embarrassment, especially with strangers. It's impossible for her to explain to an outsider what it is like to raise an autistic child for 19 years. Elisheva, who once worked at the Weizmann Institute, is now with Eran most of the day, every day. "Do you know how many times Eran has wandered off by himself and gone missing, and the police have called us to say they found him?" she asks, rhetorically. Although his understanding is extremely limited, Eran does have a sense of direction, especially if he's become familiar with the neighborhood, as he is now learning to do in Tel Aviv. Having grown up in Australia, he responds only to English phrases and a few Hebrew words he's heard before. I heard him trying to repeat Yaniv's "Yafeh! [Nice]," for example. "If someone asks in English where he lives," Elisheva says, he knows how to answer. When he shouts out "Soos!" as he plays on his computer, at first I think he is referring to the Hebrew for "horse," but when I take a closer look, I see he's looking at a Dr. Seuss drawing. "He doesn't have any friends at all in Australia," Elisheva tells me matter-of-factly. "He's very isolated. We live in a house with a small garden, but there's no real community there and it is very difficult for Eran to make friends. "We go to synagogue and other community events. However, it is Spot who will be his friend for life." In her later years (she has a life-expectancy of at least another 10 years), Spot will be joined by a new puppy, who will then take over her role. "It really does work," Yariv says, with the conviction of someone who has seen success stories over and over and over again. When it is time to leave, I feel inspired and uplifted by these special people and their incredible energy, but know that for them, it has to be exhausting and enervating as well. Yariv notes that the Center for Service and Therapy Dogs is a private business. Not every family can afford the huge undertaking, and many rely on outside donations and the non-profit fund he has established for this purpose. The organization's Web site is http://www.dservicedogs.com/english12.htm for more information. The Society for Autistic Children (ALUT) provides therapies and support to some 4,000 children with autism in Israel. Austistic children are also encouraged to interact with horses, and the Autistic Children's Project also runs a special program at the Therapeutic Riding Center. Kevin, who was at work during my visit, tells me later how positive the experience of getting a dog has been for his family. "It is early days and I am scared to say too much, but so far the pairing has been fantastic - far beyond my expectations," he says. "For the first time in Eran's life he is able to fall asleep, and sleep the night through without Eli or me in his room or without it taking him hours of tossing and turning." Kevin is full of praise for Yariv and his work. "I am really enjoying working with Yariv. His level of caring and professionalism is beyond my expectation," Kevin says. "Yariv is expecting far more that I am even hoping for... We want a friend for our son, the ability for Eran to reduce his anxiety levels, and to assist Eran to gain some form of independence." As I bid farewell, Eran is back at the computer in his room, playing a fantasy game that I can't follow. "Why don't you come and live in Israel?" I ask Elisheva. "We haven't really decided anything yet. My family is here. I also have a daughter who lives here. It's a complicated problem. We'll see!" Spot has fallen asleep on the floor in the lounge, in a world of her own, at least until the next bell rings.

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