Story by Debbi Casini Klein | Video and photo by Marina Weis
Jim and Susan Wagner have turned their love for dogs into helping children with autism.
A few years ago, they were at a fundraiser for a little girl who had seizures and had a service dog. Jim has been working with children with autism for 20 years and it gave him the idea that these dogs could be trained to help children with autism.
This lead to creation Perfect Fit Canines, a training program that matches dogs with those children in need. They train Labradors because of they are very people-oriented dogs and have an even temperament.
The dogs begin their training at eight weeks. They attend puppy pre-K classes for socialization, which takes about a year-and-a-half to complete.
These dogs can respond to approximately 20 characteristics that are typical for autistic children and individuals, such as meltdowns, reminding them to take their medications and blocking them so they don’t run out to traffic.
“Our dogs need to be able to go to restaurants, churches, pretty much anywhere a family would be going with their child,” Jim said.
They placed 15 dogs in the past two years and have many in training. The puppy raisers who take on these dogs gather once a month for a training class.
Nancy Gormley is one of those puppy raisers, who has been with her dog Bree for a year.
“Jim and Susan are amazing,” Nancy said. “They have full-time jobs and this is also their is a full-time job, anytime I need anything they’re there for me” Nancy said. “They answer my texts all night long, weekends, they meet with me. We met Friday night, they took me to the mall for one-on-one training because my dog wouldn’t get on an escalator.”
A few months ago, Jim went to Rhode Island to meet with Michelle Steiner whose daughter Lilly has autism and epilepsy. She came to Pittsburgh to meet the right puppy for Lilly.
“It takes a special person to work with kids with autism,” Michelle said. “Jim and Susan are just phenomenal people to have the hearts to have something like this.”