Sunday, 25 September 2022
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Poppy the service dog connects with autistic boy

YORK From another room, Christa Silva stared at the image on the monitor of her son, Jackson, sleeping in his bed alongside the familys new dog, an English lab named Poppy.

This is the first night we had this dog, she said, explaining why she was a bit nervous about her 7-year-old son in bed, alone, with a new pet. Shes super sweet, but shes still an animal. You never know.

Christa saw Poppy curl up on the bed. Then something happened: her son reached out and grabbed hold of the dogs tail rather firmly, actually.

Christa held her breath and hoped for the best. How would this dog warmly welcomed into their home, of course, but still a stranger to the family react to having her son latch on to her tail?

Turned out Poppy didnt mind at all.

She looked up at him . . . and she just licked his hand and laid back down, Christa said, her relief evident even in the telling of the story more than a week later. She let him hold her tail all night long. She didnt even care. Just totally cool.

Jackson and Poppy hit it off right away. In fact, Poppy is bonding quite nicely with all the Silvas Jackson, his parents, and his younger brother, Teddy, 4.

This canine connection is a wonderful thing for the family because Poppy has a role to fulfill: hes a service dog for Jackson, who has a moderate to severe diagnosis of non-verbal autism. Jackson attends the Fraser-Ford Child Development Center at Waban in South Sanford. While Waban is helping Jackson to grow as a communicator, Poppy also will be helping him develop connections and stay safe.

The Silvas got Poppy from Service Dogs by Warren Retrievers, a Virginia-based organization that trains dogs to help those with invisible disabilities, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, seizure disorders, diabetes and autism. The organizations motto is, Until theres a cure … theres a dog!

The company explains how dogs like Poppy can make a difference in the lives of people who struggle with disabilities that might not be apparent to the eyes of others.

It is important for the public to know that people whose lives might be improved or even saved by having a service dog may have a disability that is not visible, according to the website, Individuals who struggle with invisible disabilities often will benefit from having a canine companion in their lives to enhance the quality of life (and) provide hope, independence, and peace of mind.

Service Dogs By Warren Retrievers can be reached at P.O. Box 647, Madison, Virginia, 22727. The organization also may be reached by calling (540) 543-2307 or be emailing

A case worker at Waban brought SDWR to the Silvas attention. It cost the Silvas $25,000 to bring Poppy into their home an amount that covers certain veterinary needs and requirements and the vigorous training that the dogs must first undergo.

The Silvas raised the funds with the benefit of a lot of community support. The family lives at York Harbor Inn, where Greg works, and they held a fundraiser there called Jacksons Totally Awesome Comedy Show, starring comedians from Boston. The event raised $15,000 and, added to what they already had raised, the sum put the Silvas over the top. They donated all funds beyond the $25,000 they needed toward another persons efforts toward securing a service dog. Each year, the Silvas also hold a Light It Up Blue fundraiser for autism awareness at the inn.

The Silvas got Poppy Aug. 5, roughly nine months after completing their efforts to raise the $25,000. Poppy is officially a member of the Silva family, and always will be.

Shes ours now, Christa smiled and said.

Training for service dogs takes about three-and-a-half years. Dogs are trained for about two years at SDWR, and then their new owners take it from there.

You help with the training, Christa said.

Right now, the Silvas are training Poppy in the basics of good citizenship, including how to carry herself in the public surroundings that will comprise her day-to-day life. Soon, they will start training her to seek and find, as Jackson occasionally has shown a tendency to leave home and wander quite far. Poppy will be trained to track Jackson down during these instances; on the occasions when Jackson leaves with Poppy alongside him, Poppy will be trained to make sure Jackson stays away from the road.

Between Waban and Poppy, Jackson is well on his way. The Silvas credit Waban with helping their son make great strides away from non-verbalism toward communication. When Jackson started at Waban when he was two years old, he was happy in his own bubble, as Greg said, and would sit in a corner by himself or stake out his own spot on the playground. Now, though, he can communicate more extensively, especially as a result of a device that allows him to select images and type out words he wishes to convey.

Hes very bright, Greg said. He loves books about animals, numbers, colors and words.

Jackson also likes to dump Scrabble tiles onto the floor and spell out words with them. He even spelled out xylophone once something perhaps not many 7-year-olds can do.

I had to look it up and make sure he spelled it right, Greg said, chuckling.

Both Silvas credit Waban with making a difference in their sons life.

Its been remarkable, what weve seen, Greg said. His communication from when we started (at Waban) to now is unbelievable.

And, of course, Poppy already has contributed to Jacksons growth in the mere three weeks he has been a member of the family. If Jackson starts feeling agitated, for example, Poppy will stand before him and seek to be petted; Jackson understands whats taking place that Poppy is there to redirect him but he plays along and is calmed by indulging his new four-legged friend.

There are larger examples of Poppys impact on Jackson. Christa took Jackson to his annual ear appointment, and Poppy tagged along. Usually, Jacksons appointments consist of a routine procedure in close quarters that he understandably finds uncomfortable. In previous years, getting Jackson to sit calmly through the procedure has been difficult, according to Christa.

The recent visit to the audiologist was different, however. Jackson sat for the procedure and held Poppys leash. Poppy sat at Jacksons side. Christa, who usually holds her son during the procedure, this time sat off to the side. Poppy sat quietly throughout the entire procedure. So did Jackson.

He sat totally calm throughout the whole thing, Christa said. It was great.

The Silvas knew Jackson and Poppy would prove a great match for each other.

We kind of knew it was going to be a good fit for Jackson, Christa said. He loves animals. He loves dogs. He loves them.

And, as Poppy proves, they love him back.


The Bark Box

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