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Some puppies are born to change people’s lives.


Spot is one of these.  Born on Dec. 14, 2008, she was the only female in a litter of smooth collies that was bred with the intention of producing service dogs.  The little blue merle girl from a very young age showed the qualities that would be necessary for her to fulfill the task of service dog to an autistic young man.  She was alert, very people oriented, curious, fearless, determined, with a strong play drive, and a desire to learn.  Her official name was Hope of Netiv HaAyit – her purpose was to bring hope of an improved quality of life to Eran.


Eran is a 19 year old youth who is severely autistic.  His ability to communicate verbally is very limited and he is subject to behavior that can be inappropriate to his surroundings, including fits of anger and shouting, wandering off, and entering other’s property.  He has problems of lack of confidence, restlessness, and fearfulness, which require almost constant attention from the people around him, day and night. His family has been devoted to giving him the opportunity to develop to the maximum of his abilities and to function as much as possible in the normal world.  He has attended school and is well educated, he is able to work as a part of his mother’s internet business, being highly skillful on the computer, and is well oriented in his familiar surroundings, able to walk around independently, enter shops and travel on his familiar bus route.  Everyone in his familiar environment knows him and is able to assist him if he runs into any problems.


But as a young adult, Eran and his parents would like for him to have a more independent life.  When his parents heard about the work being done with service dogs for the autistic at the Israel Center for Service and Therapy Dogs, they felt that this might be the answer to providing Eran with physical and emotional support and a more independent life.


The family had to wait.  There were no puppies available for training at the time that they expressed interest.  Dogs for this type of work have to have a very special temperament, and are the result of a breeding program that has been set up for this purpose and refined for a number of years to produce a high percentage of  puppies with the characteristics necessary.  The dogs used are smooth collies, which have proven themselves as outstanding service dogs in a number of tasks, being extremely devoted to their partners, highly intelligent and easy to train, and with the ability to take initiative and function for the benefit of their partners, even when he is not able to give the command.


Hope was initially placed in a foster home, so that she would have the proper experience of living in a normal home and being socialized to everything that was a part of this. Her training for her future task was also started from the age of about three months and was carried out by Yariv Ben Yosef of the Israel Center for Service and Therapy Dogs.  She had to learn to follow commands, to be able to lead her handler home if necessary, and to react to various behaviors that were typical of autism and in particular that were part of Eran’s behavior.


Autism affects the communication skills of the affected person, making it difficult or impossible for him to speak, communicate feelings, and show affection or allow themselves to be touched or cuddled.  It also results in behaviors that are a result of the frustration and difficulty of the affected person in responding appropriately and effectively to his surroundings and can result in displays of anger, fear, or various inappropriate behaviors.


Spot learned all the necessary commands and responses, and when she was ten months old, in October 2009, Eran and his family arrived in Israel, so that Eran and Spot could bond and learn to work together before her trip to Australia.  The family had no previous experience with dogs, and were uncertain about how the bonding between Eran and Spot would go, and whether a dog could really make a difference in their lives.


From the beginning, Spot and Eran bonded completely.  Spot seemed to understand that Eran was the one who needed her help, and Eran very quickly found in Spot a source of confidence.  He began sleeping through the nights, something he had never done before, with Spot in or beside his bed.  He became comfortable going out to walk with her and letting her lead him back home if he became confused.  Spot was able to stop Eran from behaving inappropriately in public, by pulling at his pants leg, nudging him, or doing something else that would distract him and prevent him from shouting or other undesirable actions. 


Spot, Eran, and his family returned to Australia in January 2010.  Spot traveled in the cabin with Eran, behaving like a seasoned traveler even though this was her first flight.  Her adjustment to her new home and life style was very rapid and successful, and her bond with Eran and strong motivation to work with him and assist him are developing more and more.  Her level of work is amazing, especially considering that she is still very young, at the time of writing this, only a year and a half.  The community in Australia has has been very impressed, and this may open the door for more use of dogs to assist autistic children.


From the Jerusalem Post

Puppy love: A very special bond

The scene: A small park near Tel Aviv's Ben-Yehuda Street, just off Mapu Street.
The date: A sunny afternoon last Sunday, October 25.

"Sit!" Yariv, the dog-trainer commands sternly in English, stressing the "t" and making a bold gesture with his hand.

"Sit!" the young man, Eran Picker, repeats, mimicking the body language as well.

Sure enough. Spot, the cool collie, sits obediently.

"Good girl!" Yariv says, beaming.

"Good Spot!" Eran says, grinning broadly, rewarding Spot with a few small pieces of what his mother calls "schnitzel" from a specially-made bag.

After a strenuous running exercise together through the park ("Run, run!"), accompanied by loud screams and sweeping gestures, Yariv coaches Eran to say "Down!" emphatically, and they all sit down.

"And now kiss!" Yariv says.

"Kiss!" Eran repeats, and gives Spot a smooch on the mouth.

"And now one piece. One kiss, one piece!" Yariv declares, nudging Eran to give Spot another piece of food.

"We made that up ourselves," he tells me proudly. "It just came out nicely: One kiss, one piece. One piece, one kiss!"

To the casual observer, it looks like your normal dog-training session, ala Barbara Woodhouse, for those who still remember that classic British television series.

But if you care to take a closer look, this is no simple Sunday afternoon stroll through the park.

Yariv Ben-Yosef, Israel's top expert who is director of the Center for Service and Therapy Dogs, has spent the nine months since Spot's birth at the Sha'ar Hagay Kennel near Jerusalem training her especially for Eran.

After being on the waiting list for three years, Eran, 19, who has severe autism, has recently come to Israel from Australia with his Israeli-born mother, Elisheva, and South African-born father, Kevin, to meet the Collie that is to become his lifelong companion.

They had made a special trip here previously just to meet Yariv and tell him what they were looking for, and the puppy cost them a lot of money (they prefer not to recall exactly how much).

Spot moved in to their new Tel Aviv apartment just three days before, but I can already see that she and Eran have begun to "connect," and are in the process of what Elisheva calls "bonding." They spend most of the day together, and in a short space of time, according to Yariv, they will be an inseparable pair.

Eran has learned to tie the leash around Spot's collar, and walk together with her on his left side (for better control) on the sidewalk. From the first night, Elisheva says, they have been sleeping together in the same double bed.

"Her calm makes him calm," Elisheva says. "On Shabbat you should have seen Eran lying on Spot. It was all so natural, and he's never even had a dog before!"

When they return to Australia early next year, she happily tells me, Spot will get a seat on the plane next to Eran.

Eran, by the way, responds only to what his mother terms "pre-recorded English," but Elisheva and Yariv are more comfortable speaking to me in Hebrew, and I have loosely translated their remarks.

"The whole enterprise is a very expensive and complicated affair," Elisheva says, soberly. "We're even going to fly Yariv to Australia periodically."

"There's really no price tag on this kind of thing," Yariv says. "My ultimate goal is to create a harmony between the child and the dog... so that they become responsible for each other, and independent from others."

Elisheva and Kevin are paying for all the expenses themselves, and they admit it's costing a small fortune. Among other things, there are the training fees, food, trips to Israel and the costs of their homes in Melbourne and Tel Aviv. They are proud parents, and want to do it alone.

In Melbourne, Eran and Elisheva work in an online book shop that they own. Kevin is an accountant.

"This was Kevin's idea from the start," Elisheva says. "He read this wonderful book about an autistic boy and a dog, and he did some investigation. And he discovered that Israel was the place to come to."

"Israel is the world leader in the field," Yariv states authoritatively. "The level, the quality of the training here is much higher than the rest of the world."

In the last 16 years, he and his dedicated team of dog trainers (who currently number six) have trained "hundreds" of dogs (he can't say exactly how many) for "special needs groups," which include autistic children and others with developmental disabilities, injuries and illnesses who live all over Israel.

As of now, Yariv says, they are training 50 to 60 dogs in locations across the country.

Yariv likes to start matching children with dogs at the impressionable but mature age of 12.

"Eran has started relatively late," he says, adding that this is the first time that an extensive pairing will be achieved with an adult autistic person.

Elisheva boasts that Yariv, who is somewhat modest himself, has trained dogs for dozens of autistic children, some of whom also develop epilepsy, from around the globe, including Germany and the US.

He is regarded as the pioneer in training dogs for people with Alzheimer's as well. He is credited with being the first in the world, together with social worker Daphna Golan-Shemesh, to train a dog specifically to aid Alzheimer's patients a decade ago. (It is called the Alzheimer's Aid Dog.)

"Besides being a constant companion and reducing their stress levels," Yariv says, "the dogs can actually save someone's life."

He drives from his home outside of Tel Aviv to visit Eran every day, and Eran takes Spot for a walk four times a day. The whole process is still very new for all parties, and they are still experiencing teething problems.

Spot still hasn't learned, for example, that she should "do her business" (the instruction Eran is being taught is: Bizzy! Bizzy!") only at Eran's instructions.

A "love" relationship between a dog and a boy can blossom in a period of just three to four weeks, Yariv says.

"Eventually, the idea is for the two of them to do almost everything together... living together and doing things together like going to work, or out to play a ball game or walking to the store to buy eggs."

The program is roughly based on the operant conditioning made famous by Pavlov and his dogs, but Yariv has introduced his own unique program of a daily schedule with "structured" activity to suit each unique pair.

He even uses a bell which chimes loudly throughout the Picker's apartment at set times.  As soon as Spot hears the bell, she walks straight to Eran, who is invariably playing on his computer in his bedroom, and he rewards her with a biscuit.

"This particular breed of collie is especially suited to autistic people," Yariv says.  "The female, especially, is essentially a herd dog.  It is very maternal and very sensitive and the dogs can initiate things by themselves."

"The dog can initiate?" I ask.

"Yes, initiate!" Yariv says, emphatically.

"If Spot wants to go for a walk, for example, she will find a way to communicate this to Eran, perhaps by howling or perhaps by bringing him her leash and scratching his leg."

This is no easy process. For Yariv, it's a full time job, but one for which he clearly has a calling.  He has studied the field around the world as well as taught himself innovative techniques to help autistic children, and every new dog and child present a unique challenge.

Once he is involved, Yariv will go to the end of the world for his children and dogs, even to Australia.

For Kevin and Elisheva, it has been like acquiring a new member of the family, although they have received very strict guidelines about keeping their distance from Spot.

"She's Eran's dog," Elisheva explains. "I'm not supposed to stroke or cuddle her. That's for him to do.  One day, we hope that Eran and Spot will be able to live together by themselves, independently from us."

She smiles optimistically.  Elisheva has the same infectious smile as her son, which in his case she is quick to point out is also his way of covering embarrasment, especially with strangers.

It's impossible for her to explain to an outsider what it is like to raise an autistic child for 19 years.  Elisheva, who once worked at the Weizmann Institute, is now with Eran most of the day, every day.

"Do you know how many times Eran has wandered off by himself and gone missing and the police have called us to say they found him?" she asks, rhetorically.

Although his understanding is extremely limited, Eran does have a sense of direction, especially if he has become familiar with the neighborhood, as he is now learning to do in Tel Aviv.

Having grown up in Australia, he responds only to English phrases and a few Hebrew words he has heard before. I heard him trying to repeat Yariv's "Yafeh! (Nice)," for example.

"If someone asks in English where he lives," Elisheva says, "he knows how to answer."

When he shouts out "Soos!" as he plays on his computer, at first I think he is referring to the Hebrew for "horse", but when I take a closer look, I see he is looking at a Dr. Seuss drawing.

"He doesn't have any friends at all in Australia," Elisheva tells me matter of factly. "He's very isolated.  We live in a house with a small garden, but there's no real community there and it is very difficult for Eran to make friends."

"We go to synagogue and other community events. However, it is Spot that will be his friend for life."

In her later years (she has a life expectancy of at least another 10 years), Spot will be joined by a new puppy, who will then take over her role.

"It really does work," Yariv says, with the conviction of someone who has seen success stories over and over again.

When it is time to leave, I feel inspired and uplifted by these special people and their incredible energy, but know that for them, it has to be exhausting and ennervating as well.

Yariv notes that the Center for Service and Therapy Dogs is a private business. Not every family can afford the huge undertaking, and many rely on outside donations and the nonprofit fund he has established for this purpose.  The organization's website is for more information.

The Society for Autistic Children (ALUT) provides therpaies and support to some 4,000 children with autism in Israel.  Autistic children are also encouraged to interact with horses, and the Autistic Children's Project also runs a special program at the Therapeutic Riding Center.

Kevin, who was at work during my visit, tells me later how positive the experience of getting a dog has been for his family.

"It is early days and I am scared to say too much, but so far the pairing has been fantastic, far beyond my expectations," he says.  "For the first timein Eran's life he is able to fall asleep, and sleep the night through without Eli or me in his room or without it taking him hours of tossing and turning."

Kevin is full of praise for Yariv and his work.

"I am really enjoying working with Yariv. His level of caring and professionalism is beyond my expectation," Kevin says. "Yariv is expecting far more than I am even hoping for...We want a friend for our son, the ability for Eran to reduce his anxiety levels, and to assist Eran to gain some form of independence."

As I bid farewell, Eran is back at the computer in his room, playing a fantasy game that I can't follow.

"Why don't you come and live in Israel?" I ask Elisheva.

"We haven't really decided anything yet. My family is here. I also have a daughter who lives here. It's a complicated problem. We'll see!"

Spot has fallen asleep on the floor in the lounge, in a world of her own, at least until the next bell rings.