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High Aim Assistance Dogs

posted November 15th, 2011 by
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Dogs helping meet their master's challenges

By Sherri Goodall

When you look into Chris Borden’s steady, engaging, clear blue eyes, you would never guess that nine years ago his entire world had shrunk to the small confines of his bedroom. At 12 years old, Chris could no longer attend school, go to church, go out to dinner, play with other kids, or participate in any other social activities we all take for granted.
Chris has Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Dogs helping their masters meet their challengesBriefly, children with ASD show deficits in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication, unusual sensory experiences and repetitive behaviors.

Sitting at Chris’s side is Morgan, a 10-year-old German Shepherd dog.
Her ears stand alert; her eyes focus steadily on Chris, reading his every emotion. She is Chris’s connection to the outside world. Morgan and Chris were partnered in 2003. Since then, Chris is now attending college, interacts with people with a direct gaze (often, people with autism do not make direct eye contact) and converses in an engaging manner. He even speaks to groups of several hundred people about autism with Morgan at his side.

Today is just another miracle, according to Chris’ mother, Janet Borden, as has been every day since Chris first met Morgan. Before Morgan, Janet tried numerous doctors, therapies and medications, but Chris’ condition only worsened. By the time he was 13, Chris was having multiple panic attacks a day and enduring cruel bullying by kids at school. Janet took Chris out of school and decided to home school him. Chris’s condition deteriorated.

It wasn’t until Janet heard about service dogs for children with autism-related disorders that Chris’ life began to change for the better. In 2003, Morgan came to Tulsa with a trainer from a nonprofit support group, which no longer exists. The Bordens made a $2,500 contribution to the support group in order to get Morgan and her trainer. The trainer actually lived with the Bordens for 10 days during which no one but Chris was allowed to interact with the dog. In one week’s time, the Bordens were going to restaurants, malls, church, and other activities outside the home.

Of course, Morgan was by Chris’s side. After the 10 days, Janet found K9 Manners & More and Mary Green. Mary was able to continue Morgan’s training with Chris. Training requirements for autism dogs are different from dogs that assist with physical disabilities. Autismtrained dogs must be solid around people and especially sensitive to their owner’s emotional health. They must sense trouble before it begins, and then be able to assist with or prevent panic and anxiety attacks.
As a result of Chris’ progress, High Aim Assistance Dogs was founded by Janet Borden, Mary Green and Kim Sykes. Lisa Bycroft came on board in 2010. Large numbers of children are diagnosed every year with ASD. Obviously, there is a great need for these specifically trained canines.

Currently, there are four dogs in training at High Aim, and 11 applicants waiting for them. Each dog costs $10,000 to train over a period of two years. The goal of High Aim is to provide each dog free of charge to its clients. High Aim thrives on gifts, donated items and fundraisers. The organization is always looking for volunteers, trainers and puppy sitters. Meet Tedward, a magnificent yellow lab in training for High Aim. He was very busy trying to wow Morgan, who politely ignored him. He rested his giant head on his trainer’s foot, another way of “checking in” with his person. Dr. Stacey Ludlow is Tedward’s trainer. They’ve been together for several months. Stacey is a pediatrician and on the High Aim board. Tedward is learning the basics of obedience, plus High Aim skills and tasks training. They go to classes twice a week. One day soon, he’ll be ready to meet his person/partner.Dogs helping their masters meet their challenges

How can a dog redirect someone’s life that is beset by social interactions that cause panic attacks? One of the first, and most important, tasks Morgan learned With this command, Morgan put her paws in Chris’s lap and leaned inward, putting comforting pressure on Chris until the panic attack subsided. In “Lap up,” the dog climbs completely onto the lap, covering the person with his weight, similar to a weighted vest which is used to allay panic or anxiety attacks in children.

Morgan can sense a panic attack before it occurs, and she will signal Chris by nose flipping his hand, lapping up, pacing around him and/or staring at him with a “hard” face. This alerts Chris to do a brain check. This “brain check” causes Chris to rethink his thought patterns to interrupt the anxiety/panic attack. Morgan has remediated many of Chris’s autistic behavior patterns over the years, so that many of her “tasks” are unnecessary now.

Some of Morgan’s (and other dogs in High Aim Assistant training) tasks include:

CHECKING IN Checking in is one of the dog’s most important tasks. Morgan does this often with Chris to check his thoughts. If she senses anxious thoughts or patterns of sensory overload, she’ll get Chris’s attention to get him to redirect his thoughts.

MAKE FRIENDS When Chris asks Morgan to “make friends,” she’ll hold out her paw to shake hands. This allows Chris to ease into social interaction with other people.

NO VISIT This is the opposite of “make friends.” It tells Morgan to ignore approaching people. There are times when it is inappropriate to interact with a service dog or its owner.

BOUNDARIES Chris uses subtle hand gestures to move Morgan into a body block that places her between him and the public. This allows Chris to maintain his personal space. Morgan often anticipates this task and moves herself between Chris and whoever is approaching him.

WIDEN PERSONAL SPACE Morgan is trained to walk slightly ahead of, and around, Chris in wide circles. This prevents sensory overload, so people don’t get too close unless invited. Personal space issues are critical to people like Chris. (When I first met Chris and Morgan, I asked if I could pet Morgan. I sensed that there was a “boundary” around Chris that I shouldn’t cross without permission.)

This is Morgan’s command to go find Chris when she’s not with him, or to go find someone else upon Chris’s command.

REALI TY CHE CK/REFOCUS The dog is trained to sit or lie beside the handler and allow him to twirl or stroke fur to assist with anxiety, intrusive thoughts and distractibility. Repetitive behavior can be redirected with this task.

All of us that are pet owners know this other dimension of emotional sensitivity between our pets and ourselves. How often is it that we know they sense our discomfort, sadness or anxiety? They’ll come and lay down by our sides, or stick their noses into our hands. I’ve noticed my Westies staring at me with such intensity during stressful times, as if to say‚Ķ “OK, snap out of it – now!” With such a meaningful and critical goal embraced by High Aim Assistance Dogs, hopefully the needs of so many kids with autism-related disorders will be met.

For more information, and to find out how you can help, visit

Dogs helping their masters meet their challenges