Dandelion — Winter 2011
Change Language:
InstaDog, Insta-Friendship
Katie Atherton

For Jack, an 11-year-old with multiple disabilities, an autism service dog will soon rock his and his family's world.

Eleven-year-old Jack Petersen passionately regales us with a story about the time he took the stage at the California State Fair to perform a karaoke rendition of Guns N’ Roses. He suddenly lunges, grabs hold of his air-microphone, and yells into it, “Boys, let’s rock this town!” Of course, the crowd went wild that day.

His mother, Jill, nods and confirms, “They gave him a standing ovation.”

Meeting Jack, you most likely would never know that he has multiple disabilities. Because of a unique trait that allows him to memorize ways to be socially acceptable (in combination with multiple therapies and treatments), Jack can almost fool even the therapists.

“He’s an enigma because he comes across as very intelligent and charismatic,” says Jill, “but you give him coins, and he can’t tell you how much the money is worth—he’ll say the presidents’ names on the coins.”

Since his birth, Jack has received motley diagnoses and has been involved in an array of cutting edge medical treatments and research. But his family is selective, using an approach that Jack’s father, Grant, likes to call “prudent aggressiveness, yet not radical,” with the simple goal of happiness for their son.

Jack’s most recent undertaking is Biscuit, a specially-trained autism service dog. Jack, who loves animals, is thrilled at the prospect of getting his own dog.

Jill is hopeful that Biscuit will not only help Jack in day-to-day challenges, but that he’ll enrich other aspects of Jack’s life, too. “There’s only so much you can do medically for your child,” she explains, “but to give them a compan- ion—there’s no price tag you can put on that.”

Mother's Instinct

“What’s wrong with him?” Jill asked the nurse when she delivered Jack, her third child, noticing his umbilical cord looked small. The nurse assured her that Jack was fine.

The next day, the Petersens had a party in celebration of Jill’s birthday. But the celebration turned to alarm—Jack’s belly was distended, and he hadn’t shown the usual meconium passing. As Jill held her baby next to the phone receiver, the consulting nurse recognized the sounds of gulping as a sign that he was gasping for air. Jack was life-flighted to the UC Davis Children’s Hospital: Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, where he endured a six hour surgery, and spent the next six weeks fighting sepsis and pneumonia.

Jill’s instinct had been correct—Jack was born with a perforated bowel. Recently, a series of brain scans revealed that Jack also suffered a stroke as a baby, affecting his brain function.

At 18 months, Jack wasn’t walking, and he diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Since then, he has received physical therapy, along with an interesting solution for the overactive muscles in his right leg, caused by CP, that inhibited his gait: Botox injections. The Botox blocks the transmission of nerve impulses to Jack’s muscles, enabling them to finally relax. Thanks to the injections, Jack is finally able to place his entire foot flat on the floor while walking (previously, only his toes touched).

Two years ago, his parents noticed that Jack had trouble learning at the same rate as his classroom peers. Subsequently, he was diag- Nosed with a rare form of epilepsy that causes spontaneous, recurrent seizures to the brain called CSWS (continuous spikes and waves during slow sleep). Jack was also recently diagnosed with autism.

In November, he’ll receive a groundbreaking laser treatment to destroy brain lesions that cause the epilepsy and seizures. His family is hoping the procedure will make Jack less resistant to medication, which may control some of his behavioral issues. They're also hopeful about another remedy Jack will receive this spring: Biscuit.

A Lending Paw

Jack is now attending Arden Middle School with a one-on-one aide. Soon, he’ll add a furry, fourlegged aide to his educational program.

Biscuit has been trained and matched to Jack by the Good Dog! Autism Companions organization, which offers customized training and guidance of autism service dogs.

“Jack and Biscuit are a perfect match—both have loads of personality! We can’t wait to see them thrive together,” says Tim Houweling, who runs Good Dog! With Elise Lalor and Laura Sylvester (whose own autistic son, Elliot, was matched successfully with service dog Orbit).

Tim and Elise own K9 Training Concepts, an obedience training program that also trains family and service dogs, called InstaDogs, that are fully trained when families take them home. Through the Good Dog! Organization, Tim and Elise then supplement InstaDogs' core training with autism-specific commands based on the needs of the child, in addition to focusing on family-friendly placement, education and research.

Tim explains, “By training Biscuit for Jack and his specific needs, we are able to place him in his working home earlier than other trainers. This extends Biscuit’s service life, and helps forge a stronger bond than we see with dogs placed at an older age with their human partner.”

In pursuit of the best quality of life for Jack, the Petersens have been raising funds to adopt Biscuit (adoption fees range $7,000 to $14,500).

In August, more than 150 people attended Benefit for Biscuit, raising half of the $10,000 needed to bring Biscuit home. They have high hopes that when Biscuit is officially welcomed into the family’s home in spring, he’ll provide more independence for Jack. Biscuit will help him get ready for school in the morning and guide him to and from classes—and, Jack will be able to walk independently with Biscuit instead of constantly holding the hand of a parent.

Most important to Jill and Grant is the unconditional love that Biscuit will supply. As the third child of four, Jack relies on his siblings Jace (8), Ross (18), and Elizabeth (20) for friendship. The family hopes to expand Jack’s world, reaching out to others with Biscuit acting as the social bridge to help initiate conversation and compassion.

Get a Good Dog

Good Dog!Autism Companions


Help unite Jack and Biscuit: search “Benefit for Biscuit” on Facebook