Tyler Abbanat, who has autism, has been working to train Gretchen. She has learned to avoid obstacles and can even open the refrigerator. Fred Gladdis/Enterprise photo

Local News

‘We’re the ones who are being trained': Assistance dog helps boy, family

By From page A3 | August 14, 2014

Tyler Abbanat faces more challenges than most other 10-year-old boys.

Tyler, who goes by Ty, has been in and out of the hospital for a severe bowel condition. One year, the Davis boy was hospitalized seven times. At age 4 1/2, he underwent surgery.

Then, when he was 6 years old, Ty was diagnosed with autism. Repeated hospitalizations have given him post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Everyday things bring the fight-or-flight response,” said Ty’s mother Jennifer.

But the Abbanats — Jennifer and Brian, and their children Megan, Ty and Sarah — know the secret to a relaxed home: pets.

“We have a lot of animals because we’ve always known that animals bring our family together,” Jennifer said.

Ty has always adored the Abbanats’ two small dogs. He feeds and cares for them, and the dogs help Ty in return.

“He uses animals to regulate,” Jennifer said. “A huge part of autism is dysregulation — not being able to control your body’s response to things.”

The dogs help Ty stay calm, but they’re too skittish to accompany Ty to places like the hospital or doctor’s office, where he is stressed and needs their help.

Then the Abbanats heard about Canine Companions for Independence.

CCI is a nonprofit organization that breeds and trains assistance dogs, before matching them with people and organizations who benefit from the dogs’ unique skills. To be matched with a CCI dog, families go through an application procedure. 

“They’re very selective,” Brian said. “There’s a lot of families that get turned away.”

According to Jennifer, CCI places only about 80 assistance dogs each year across the nation. This is a reflection of the time and resources put into raising and training each dog.

Once a family is selected to be matched with a dog, they undergo an intensive two-week training course. CCI does not charge participants for either the dog or the training.

The Abbanats applied  for a dog for Ty in November 2012. They were placed on the wait list in February 2013.

“From what we were hearing, it was unusual to move through (the application process) that fast, which gave us hope,” Jennifer said.

In mid-2014, more than a year after being placed on the wait list, the Abbanats were told that Ty would be matched with a dog. Their wait had paid off.

The whole family went to the CCI campus in Santa Rosa for team training. There, the Abbanats were introduced to four different dogs, each a potential match for Ty. One of these dogs was named Gretchen.

“When Gretchen came and put her head in Ty’s lap, I thought in my heart, ‘This is the dog,’ ” Jennifer said.

Brian also saw something special in Gretchen. “It seemed like she was the calmest of the four dogs,” he said.

Ty’s big sister Megan agreed. “She was cute.”

But ultimately, the choice was Ty’s. “He said, ‘I really like Gretchen. I think she’s a good dog for me,’ ” Jennifer recalled.

“I picked her,” Ty said.

Ty’s choice pleased Jennifer, who watched him interact with all four dogs.

“We knew we needed a dog to complement his energy,” Jennifer said. “(Gretchen) is playful but also very calm. She’s able to bring the energy level down when he needs it to be down.”

The Abbanats saw an immediate difference in Ty’s behavior after he was matched with Gretchen. He engaged with the dog training lessons more and began to attend the group lunches hosted by CCI. And the entire family enjoyed staying at the CCI campus.

“We felt like we were in heaven there,” Jennifer said. “The experience was by far one of the greatest for our family.”

Back home, Gretchen continues to help Ty, providing support that the family’s other animals cannot.

“She helps us out so much as a family,” Jennifer said. “When Ty has behaviors, the other dogs used to run away — they’re too timid. But Gretchen goes to him. … He’ll go down on all fours, and we have a command for her to lay on top of him. It just provides this calm.”

His special dog helps Ty socially, too.

“He uses (Gretchen) as a social bridge to talk to people, so long as you want to talk about dogs,” Jennifer said. “Gretchen brings us into his world, but also draws him out of his world to participate in our world.”

Ty is proud to be Gretchen’s handler. He puts her through a range of commands: sit, down, jump, speak. She can pick up a pen from the ground and give it to Ty. At his command, she will even open the refrigerator door using a rope attached to the handle.

Gretchen’s abilities have given Ty a new way to connect with others. Now, he is sharing his expertise, showing Brian more about how to handle Gretchen.

“There is so much that (Gretchen) will continue to facilitate as Ty gets older,” Jennifer said. “She’ll grow up with him from this point and continue to help him.”

Lily Holmes

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