Story last updated at 11/19/2008 - 4:22 pm
JUNEAU - Chris Brenner says his chocolate lab Raz is the coolest dog in the world, and it's hard to disagree.
Chris, 19, has Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD), an autism spectrum disorder. Like other autistic individuals he is easily distracted and engages in repetitive behaviors. His mother used to worry about him getting lost. All this is changing now that Chris has Raz, an autism assistance dog who is trained in search and rescue, calming Chris down and assisting with a host of daily tasks ranging from picking up dropped items to turning off the lights.
"He really helps me to focus," Chris said. "I'm just really glad I have him. I love him."
Chris has dreamed of having a dog for years, but it was only in the last year that Robin learned of service dogs specially trained to help individuals with autism. These highly-trained dogs are not cheap, and four months ago Robin and Chris began fundraising to get Chris a service dog from an Ohio organization, the only organization they could find that trained autism assistance dogs.
Little did they know, the perfect dog for Chris was already being trained just 90 miles north, in Haines.
Since getting Raz, Chris has become comfortable living in his own apartment. He tried to take the bus alone for the first time. He spent hours in the mall making a Christmas list. He doesn't tap his teeth as much as he used to.
None of these things would have been possible before Raz showed up, said Chris's mother, Robin Brenner.
"Chris has so much more confidence," Robin said. "He's so much happier. I really feel blessed that we have (Raz). He's an answer to a prayer."
A hound from Haines
Milinda May lives with her husband and their two children in Haines. Milinda has spent her life training, grooming and helping dogs and other animals. After moving to Haines in 1999, she founded the Haines Animal Rescue Kennel. She is a certified service dog trainer but focused on grooming for the past 20 years. Now her life direction is changing, and again, it's thanks to a chocolate lab named Raz.
In early July, Ed May read an article in the CCW about Chris and Robin's efforts to raise money for a service dog for Chris. He brought the article to his wife and suggested she call Robin and Chris and tell them about Raz, the dog Milinda had been working with.
"He said, 'Milinda, your body's breaking down on you and this is your cue to get out of this and put down the grooming,'" Milinda said. "It was his encouragement that got me to call. He just saw this as a great opportunity."
Milinda had already been working with Raz for several months. When she first met Raz, she knew he was meant to be a service dog. And when she read about Chris, she knew he was meant to have Raz.
"I read the article and thought wow, this is just something," Milinda said. "I knew I had this special dog."
But Robin and Chris were already fundraising with another organization, based in Ohio, at the time. Still, Milinda kept calling and she and Robin became close.
At one point, Milinda put Raz up on Craig's list because she wasn't sure it was going to work out with Chris. In one day, she had 10 responses.
She immediately realized two things: there was a huge need for service dogs in Alaska, and she couldn't give Raz to anyone but Chris.
"I ... really got a strong feeling that Raz (had) to go to Chris," Milinda said. "It really has to go with that feeling, that inside feeling of, is this really mentally, physically, emotionally right for everyone involved?"
Milinda talked to the Brenners once more and they finally decided it made the most sense to work together.
Milinda showed Raz a photo of Chris as she was training him and told him about his owner to-be.
"I told Raz, 'You're not going to be part of the pack here. You've got a higher purpose.' And he seemed to understand. He never tried to join in with the pack."
Love at first sight
When Raz first saw Chris Brenner, he went right toward him. Maybe he recognized Chris from the photos Milinda had shown him, but he seemed to know he was meant to help Chris.
"He knew right away that Chris was for him," Milinda said. "He followed Chris around and stuck next to Chris."
And Raz has hardly left Chris's side since, except when they play fetch and hide-and-go-seek.
"He won't leave him very long," Robin said. "He stands at the bathroom door and waits for him. He likes to work. He likes to do things (for Chris). He's so smart - he opens and closes doors, he turns off lights, he turns them on. He pushes buttons on doors."
Raz knows that when he's out in public, especially in crowded places, he's on the job. But when he's relaxing around the house, he acts just like any other rambunctious young dog.
"When he's working, he's working," Robin said, "but when he's not, he's so goofy."
Games like fetch and hide-and-go-seek are good practice for Raz. If Chris is lost, Raz can find him and bring him back to Robin. And as Chris is getting ready to have major back surgery, Raz helps out by picking things up off the floor for him.
He will also brace himself, becoming rigid so that Chris can use him for support in getting up.
He's helped Chris's friend get over a fear of dogs, said Aaron Danielson, Chris's care provider.
"He's not only helping one person," he said.
Since working with Raz and Chris, Milinda has decided to devote herself to service dog training full time. She doesn't know of anyone else training and placing service dogs in Alaska.
"Seeing the article and meeting Chris and Robin made me come out of the closet and say, 'It's time,'" Milinda said. "It's been kind of a scary thing to step out."
Milinda will work with Southeast Alaska Independent Living (SAIL) to match clients with service dogs. She certainly has one glowing recommendation under her belt.
"He's everything we wanted in a service dog and more," Robin said.
Said Chris: "Thank you to everyone who donated and helped with this cause."
Chris and Robin still need to raise $1000 to pay for Raz. Check upcoming issues of the CCW for information on fundraising events.
Milinda May's new business, SEAK-A-DOG, will train service dogs to assist with a variety of physical and mental disabilities. She also offers consultations for those who have trained their own service dogs. For more information, e-mail email@example.com or call 767-5433.
Ask before approaching a service animal
If you see a dog wearing a vest reading "Service Dog" or "Service Dog in Training," he is on the job, and it is best to not interrupt.
"The service dogs are working dogs first and pets and companion dogs second," said trainer Milinda May. "When they put on their working uniform, they become working dogs and they're serious."
May likens service dogs to police officers. Just as you wouldn't approach a police officer on duty and give him a hug, you shouldn't walk over and pet a service dog on the job.
If the dog is wearing a training vest, it's best to leave him alone. If you or your child really wants to pet the dog, you may ask the dog's owner if it's okay, but respect his or her right to say no.