by Jennifer Cohen
Studies have shown that therapy dogs reduce stress, help keep children safe, and of course, serve as great companions to the children they support.
That’s certainly been the case for rock & roll dad Tom Petersson, the co-founder and bass player of Cheap Trick who was recently inducted Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. But Tom and his wife, Alison, are also devoted parents to their two children: Lilah, age 12, and Liam, age 9.
Photo credit: Vickie Pewitt
Liam has autism, which affects 1 in 68 children. It is one of the fastest-growing developmental conditions in the United States. There is currently no medical detection or cure for autism.
Parents of children with autism try different therapies to help their children better acclimate. Treatment options include speech therapy, physical therapy, occupation therapy, and behavior therapy. Some work. Some don’t. But many parents of children with autism are seeing that the most effective autism treatment may come on four legs.
One of the ways Liam’s parents chose to help their son was by getting a certified service dog for him. Blue, a miniature Labradoodle, joined their family two years ago when Blue was about one year old. He was named for Liam’s favorite color.
The Peterssons found Blue through the North Star Foundation, a nonprofit agency that helps children with social, emotional, or educational challenges through animal assisted therapy and assistance dog placements. They train puppies as therapy dogs specifically for children with autism.
Research on the effects of companion animals on kids with autism is limited, but heartening. A 2014 study showed that dogs can give children with autism much-needed friendship. They can also help the children learn responsibility. Previous research found that having a family pet from a young age tended to improve social skills.
According to a study published in the Journal of Pediatric Nursing by Dr. Gretchen Carlisle, a research fellow with the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction at the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine, children with autism may especially benefit from interacting with dogs, who can provide unconditional, nonjudgmental love and companionship.
Both long-time dog lovers, Alison and Tom grew up with dogs and already had Monte, a Cavachon, at home.
“We wanted service dog because (in addition to autism) Liam also has epilepsy. It is well controlled but we had fear of him having a seizure in the middle of the night and us not being aware of it. We heard all these great stories about dogs that can predict seizures, so we got Blue in the hopes that he would warn us if Liam started to have a seizure. The good news is that his epilepsy is so well controlled with medication that he’s not had a seizure since we’ve had Blue,” said Alison.
They also wanted a service dog to help keep Liam out of danger; children with autism often wander away or simply walk out the door. Many kids, especially those with autism, are also drawn to water and the Petersson family lives near a pond. Like all parents of kids with autism, drowning is a constant fear.
“Our property is locked down around our house but still, nothing is foolproof,” said Alison. “We have double cylinder locks on the gates and we keep the key hidden, but then we also don’t want to create a fire hazard if there is an emergency and we can’t find the key,” said Alison. “We have nicknamed Liam ‘Houdini’ because he’s been able to open locks and get out of the gates on his own.”
Blue has already proven himself to be Liam’s trustworthy protector.
One day a few months ago Liam was sitting on his bed watching videos on his computer, one of his unwinding activities. Alison was in the garage organizing.
“I was busy for maybe 10 minutes when I heard Blue barking, which is rare. It made me wonder why he was barking. I went to see what was going on and I saw Liam. He had gotten a hold of the key and he was letting himself out the front door just as I got there. Blue was standing there barking,” said Alison. “If it wasn’t for Blue I never would have known Liam was leaving.”
Autism assistance dogs also provide emotional support to children. Dogs never judge a child and the unconditional companionship and friendship often helps a child with autism build confidence.
“Blue is such a wonderful companion for Liam. That’s the other beautiful thing. They are best friends. And friendships are few and far between with kids with autism. They don’t get invited to parties or have many opportunities to form relationships. It’s just part of living with autism. So Blue is truly Liam’s best friend. That companionship became really important and that’s been just amazing for Liam,” said Alison.
Liam does not have play dates or participate in after school activities, so Blue is his constant companion.
“As a companion in general terms dogs, like music, help everyone and it is good for kids and they learn different things from it,” said Tom. “They are your best friend and they will protect you. If you are scared in your room the dog is there and things are not so bad. Dogs are great for that.”
Photo credit: Alison Petersson
Tom also talked about how Blue taught Liam to learn empathy and kindness.
“Right at first when Blue arrived, Liam really became more compassionate,” said Tom. “Before Blue, if someone got hurt, Liam did not know how to react. He did not know if it was funny or not funny, but the minute Blue arrived on the scene it seemed that Liam had more compassion. Liam just really loves Blue and treats him like he’s a school friend. He really does not have anyone he hangs around with from his class, but he’s got Blue.”
While Blue loves everyone in the family, his strongest bond is with Liam.
“Blue is different with Liam than with the rest of the family,” said Alison. “I take care of him, but Liam gives him treats and runs in the yard with him. I may call for Blue and sometimes he won’t come, but when Liam calls him he’s right there. Sometimes I get Liam to call him for me,” laughed Alison.
Although Blue was trained as a certified service dog, Liam is very high functioning, so the family does not need him to perform all of the functions that may be required or expected of service dogs for other children.
For example, Blue does not go to school with Liam. It is something that Blue could do, but Liam does not require that much support.
“It’s just not necessary for Blue to accompany Liam to school. Liam has a (human) helper there and it would mean extra work for everyone involved,” said Alison, who is extremely pragmatic.
And Alison and Tom are all about doing what makes sense for their family.
Finding what works for each situation and child is the key, according to Patty Dobbs Gross, MA, Founder and Executive Director of North Star. Patty started the nonprofit 20 years ago after her son Dan, who is on the autism spectrum, received a service dog from Canine Companions for Independence. That organization places dogs with people in wheelchairs. The dog Dan received, Madison, was a “drop out dog” … and those dogs would go to kids with developmental issues.
“We really did not know what to do with the dog and CCI did not know either, since it was brand new. So they asked me, ‘What do you want Madison to do with Dan?’ We came up with the role Madison would play together,” said Patty. That prompted her to start North Star.
“Placing Blue with this family was one of the most enjoyable experiences,” said Patty. “It was the first time I had ever met a famous musician and Alison and Tom are such fun people. And Blue has a fun spirit. It’s all about getting the right tempered dog for the right child and family. For the Peterssons, we needed a dog that would be comfortable on the road with new people and also at home hanging out with the family, and another dog, and a sibling. We wanted a tolerant, social, friendly, calm, mellow, and socially intelligent dog.”
Patty stressed that teamwork is vital when making a placement.
“We created a team that included a great dog trainer, Dean Miller. It’s all community-based and that’s how you have to approach autism. It’s about partnering up all of the energy. We really wanted a tool for Liam to move forward.”
She noted that families considering a therapy dog must be on board and educated. They must learn how to handle the dog and find out what works for their specific situation.
And while Blue is clearly a benefit to Liam, Alison and Tom spoke frankly about the amount of work that is involved in having a service dog. And why sometimes that means Blue does not accompany Liam.
“Honestly, it is a lot to take the dog everywhere. It became overwhelming. Two kids and a dog can become really stressful,” said Alison candidly, “especially when Tom is not around.”
With Tom’s nonstop travel schedule, they have taken Blue on tour on occasion, but that, too, is not easy.
“We tried it and Liam loves having Blue around, but it can be tough,” said Alison. “It is great to have Blue with us for companionship for Liam. The downfall is having Blue at a rock concert. Obviously concerts are so loud and dogs have sensitive ears. The noise causes Blue distress. We also can’t just leave Blue in the hotel room, so there is more work to it than people might think.”
And for Tom and Alison, there are even more factors that can create challenges when traveling with a dog.
“You have to look at getting the dog used to all different situations. If you go to New Orleans the police are riding around on horses. If the dog has never seen a horse before he might freak out,” said Tom. “We travel a lot and there can be these new, weird situations with different people and airports. So then you’ve got a dog and you are in a hotel in some rough area of town and you’re like, ‘I’ve got to go walk the dog now’,” said Tom with a laugh. “Or you could be out there with the dog and there’s a lightning storm.”
“And you know a dog isn’t like a cat. A cat can take care of itself for a while if you left it alone, but you can’t leave a dog by himself,” said Tom. “Especially for us when we are in a hotel room and he starts barking. We wouldn’t even know.”
“For us, bringing Blue with us can create more work than it needs to be. It’s stressful enough to travel. Adding a dog in makes it challenging. And although he’d love to have Blue with him all of the time, it’s not something that Liam needs,” said Alison. “He has been flying since he was born and fortunately he loves to travel, but other parents with autistic kids might find it helpful or even necessary.”
Alison pointed out that one of the biggest challenges of taking Blue with them was how people reacted to the dog.
“Many times we were refused service at restaurants. Many managers did not want the dog to come into the restaurant,” said Alison. “Restaurant managers are completely ignorant of the law. It was very frustrating and added to the anxiety of having Blue with us.”
Alison shared a story of when one restaurant manager in Los Angeles said we had to sit on the patio with Blue.
“I told him legally he can’t make us do that and we just left. They thought it was going to turn other customers away, even though most service dogs just lie under the table and you never even know he’s there.” (Click here to learn more about Service Animals and the ADA)
“Blue wears a service dog vest when he’s out. We have a handicap placard because of Liam. It’s a very strange thing because (with autism) there’s no visible disability. There’s no difficulty for him walking, but that’s not the reason we have the handicap placard. It’s extremely beneficial to us at times when Liam is in melt down mode and refuses to walk, or if you have emergency seizure medication in your car and you want to know there’s quick access,” said Alison.
She went on to say that having a service dog can help people understand that there is a reason a child with autism is acting out.
“When you’re out and your son is having a meltdown people look at you. They think I just have a highly misbehaving child,” said Alison. “It can be unpredictable. All of the sudden something happens. Liam might get stressed out and act out. We might be in the mall and he’s having a melt down and we don’t know why. It may be because it’s crowded or the lighting is bothering him, but he can’t express that.”
“Having a service dog around can help make it a little more obvious and make people aware that there’s an issue,” said Alison. “Sometimes I wonder if I need to wear a sign saying, ‘My child has autism’,” she said.
“Dogs are great for any kid, but more so for kids with social challenges because it is a companion who also teaches responsibility and being gentle, and all that is really good stuff,” said Alison. “My take on it is there are so many different levels and severity that each need is going to be different.”
Both Alison and Tom stressed that each family needs to find what works for them and that it is up to the parents to determine how best to integrate a service dog into their life based on their child’s specific needs and abilities.
Tom also stressed the amount of training that is required for service dogs.
“If you want to utilize a service dog, you can’t just get a service dog and think he’s trained from now until the end of time. You have to keep training him and be prepared to go out there for two hours. It’s a long process. Even a trained dog will need more training. You can’t expect the dog to know what to do. There’s more work to it than you might think if you are really depending on him to be a real service dog,” said Tom.
“It’s like working out. You can’t work out for a little while and then say, “There, I worked out. Now I’m fit,” laughed Tom. “This is an ongoing thing. You have to stay on top of the training. It’s not like you have Lassie or Rin Tin Tin and the dog will just do all these things you want him to do.”
Liam is fully verbal and there are no longer any communication barriers, but that wasn’t always the case. As a toddler, Liam hardly spoke.
“For years it was getting him up to speed with the communication and speech,” said Alison.
Not surprisingly, music was the connection to Liam becoming more verbal. Once Alison saw how music helped Liam with his speech, she encouraged Tom to create rock songs to help Liam communicate. So he wrote songs that would help Liam learn useful phrases and basic needs of expression, such as being hungry or tired. The end result became Rock Your Speech, a tool that uses the power of music and specifically, rock and roll, to help kids with autism and speech disorders communicate. Rock Your Speech is geared towards music and speech therapists, parents, and educators who incorporate music into their daily lives both as therapy and entertainment.
The project has two goals; provide families with a fun way of practicing speech and language skills, and to build global understanding of autism spectrum disorder.
“Liam likes to speak-singing, but he does not sing with a lot of pitch. He tries to mimic sounds of songs. As long as he was vocalizing, that was what mattered to us. Sometimes he even sings to Blue,” said Alison. Blue is the name of one of the songs on Rock Your Speech.
“Having Blue has been so beneficial for our family in so many ways. It’s all been really good and I can’t imagine not having a dog for Liam,” said Alison.
Photo credit: Vickie Pewlit