The love between a boy and his dog is special, but the bond between seven-year-old Matthew Colombo and his dog, Cash, is extraordinary. Cash is a service dog for Matthew, who is autistic.
For children with autism even the simplest transitions can be difficult, whether it is simply walking from one environment to another, such as indoors to outdoors, or a more stimulating situation like a family celebration at Easter weekend, with all the hoopla and crowds. For a child with autism, changes can cause a sensory overload, which leads to confusion and fear.
Parents Russell and Lisa Colombo know Cash, their trained autism service dog, can calm their son; they’ve seen the Labrador retriever-cross do so at malls, in parking lots and at restaurants.
“Cash gives our son the ability to manage his life, the day-to-day routines and transitions,” explained Matthew’s mother. “Cash wakes Matthew up in the morning and puts him to bed at night. When Matthew is eating or getting dressed, Cash is there.”
But currently, the Colombos are playing a waiting game with the Waterloo Region District School Board, as the dog is not allowed in the school that Matthew attends. The family has approached the local school to request that Cash be allowed to go with Matthew to school, but have been denied time and again.
“We are advocating for Cash to be able to accompany Matthew to school, and we have been doing that since September of this school year,” explained Lisa. “If the policy does get implemented, it won’t just help our family but many other families who are in our position.”
While dogs have long been man’s best friend, it is only in the last 30 years that specially trained dogs have provided a wide range of services for individuals with various limitations. And it has only been within the last decade that dogs have been used to serve the needs of autistic children such as Matthew.
The service dogs are trained at a Lions Club-operated facility in Breslau, and then are matched up with children based on their personality and characteristics.
Cash’s calm, patient and loving personality is a perfect match for her son, Lisa said, adding that the extensive training that the family went through, as well as assistance from a trainer has helped the process immensely.
The Colombos had to complete a one-week training session in January of this year, living in residence at the Dog Guides Canada Oakville facility, where they learned how Cash could help their son.
The Colombos realized by the time he was nine months old that Matthew was having difficulties, which were eventually diagnosed as autism, a sleeping disorder and respiratory difficulties. Lisa, an educator for children with special needs, knows that early intervention and support is instrumental in raising a healthy, successful autistic child and the addition of Cash to their family has helped them immensely.
“Matthew goes through speech therapy, physical therapy, occupational therapy – but there is just something about the way that he interacts with Cash which is so different from anything that other humans can provide,” she said. “Matthew will need huge support for his whole life, but the changes we are already seeing are amazing. His sleeping has improved, and you can see as they walk together there is a confidence that is growing.”
Cash was funded by the Knights of Columbus in Waterloo, a commitment worth about $20,000. Lisa volunteers with the Lions Club, which is in the process of raising money to fund another service dog for a local family.
“It’s incredible to see,” she explained. “It’s amazing how a bit of financial support can change the course of someone’s life so drastically.”