Lavanya Sunkara, Freelance Writer
April 2015 | Originally published on Bark Post
Shadow is no ordinary puppy. He is responsible for caring for his emotionally and physically fragile best buddy, ten-year old Jonathan. As a service puppy, his job consists of being by Jonathan’s side and alerting his parents when he’s having a problem. Shadow was just one-week-old when he met his forever friend.
Jonathan lives with his parents, Jake and Robyn Zampier, in Trumbull, CT. He went through four open heart surgeries and was diagnosed with Down syndrome and autism; he suffers from respiratory issues and severe reflux, requiring him to receive 50% of his nutrition through a feeding tube. However, he’s a bubbly boy who doesn’t let his ailments get to him. A big thanks goes to his furry companion, Shadow, a seven-month-old Golden from the North Star Foundation.
From its Connecticut location, North Star places puppies with kids with autism and other special needs. Founder Patty Dobbs Gross believes that bringing children and the puppies together early on forms an emotional, inseparable bond. In Jonathan’s case, the bond is even more crucial because of the boy’s health.
Gross tells BarkPost:
The boy has known the puppy since he was a week old and they will grow up together. Shadow has to be careful to control his body because he’s going to get bigger.
Shadow joined his adoptive family last November and follows Jonathan around everywhere. When Jonathan wakes up before mom and dad, Shadow keeps him company. When Jonathan goes to school, Shadow happily joins him on the car ride. When Jonathan gets home, Shadow is wagging his tail, ready to play ball. When they go on long drives together, the two sit in the back helping each other pass the time.
The Zampiers researched other service dog organizations for Jonathan and were denied by one. They then found North Star and fell in love with the model and the pup.
According to Jake Zampier:
Before we brought Shadow home, when we would visit him at Patty’s, it was priceless to watch him and Jonathan chase each other around in the yard. Jonathan is always looking for him or making sure he’s around. Shadow fills in the gap mom and dad can’t fill.
The first long car trip we took, we were going three hours away to Jonathan’s grandparents for Thanksgiving. I looked back in the mirror and saw Shadow had his head on Jonathan’s lap and Jonathan had his arm around Shadow with a HUGE grin on his face.
Shadow and Jonathan attend a customized training session twice a week where the pup learns important skills to better assist his kid. The trainer teaches basic commands along with how to alert the parents when Jonathan is experiencing physical challenges.
Shadow has an edge over Jake and Robyn in terms of understanding psychological things because of his sense of smell. He understands that Jonathan is starting to be anxious [by identifying an increase in cortisol levels] and is able to clue Robyn and Jake in.
Additionally, the dog fulfills the child’s emotional needs, as it’s lonely to be different. Whenever Jonathan is home or in a social setting, he has a constant companion who has his back.
But it’s not just the child that benefits; Shadow also provides the family with friendship. During the long winter weekends, when they were stuck inside to protect Jonathan against the germs of cold and flu season, having Shadow be a part of their family helped tremendously. Shadow has also added responsibility to Jonathan’s life, as he has to help feed him every day. Jonathan has an increased purpose in helping to care for him.
Since its inception, North Star has placed 250 assistance puppies around the world: 100 with children on the autism spectrum and the rest with those with Down syndrome and emotional challenges including grief, anxiety, or pain from serious illness.
Volunteer families foster the puppies for the first couple of months before they are placed in perfectly matched homes. Each puppy is given appropriate training to suit the needs and personality of the children and to ensure that the relationship is compassionate, safe, and delightful.
North Star continues to a resource throughout the life of the placement. In addition to providing specially trained puppies, they offer certification for pets and classes for families on best practices for the canine-child partnership and teach dogs sign language to increase communication with a nonverbal child.
For a child with Down syndrome or autism, an exhausting day of struggling to communicate or simply be a kid is transformed by the presence of a furry friend. Spending time with a dog provides an avenue for downtime. The right dog can be a valuable asset to any child, and it’s clearly evident in the love shared between Jonathan and Shadow.