Adam Reed is a 14-year-old Barrie resident who's on the autism spectrum. He goes to high school, where he is in Grade 9 and is doing well.
His favourite activity in school is studying digital art and, before too long, he'll be off to college.
But it wasn’t always as hopeful as this.
He and his family can thank the Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides program.
Adam is on his second guide dog, a canine named Shawn. They've been teamed up since 2020.
His previous service dog, Totem, had worked with him since he was two-and-a-half-years-old.
Totem and Shawn each cost approximately $35,000 to breed, raise, train, and place, but like all guide dogs, they were provided free of charge to Adam’s family.
“We were really struggling with Adam,” mother Zuzana says.
“We had just got him diagnosed and he was very aggressive, lots of issues," she says. "We tried all kinds of different therapies. Nothing was working. It was just a total chance that we ran into someone that asked if we had looked into a service dog. And we said, 'No, we have not.'”
They got connected with the Lions Club and "really liked the program." Most of all, they were surprised it was free for them.
"All the other services we looked at were really, really expensive,” she says. “I’ve quit my job to be able to take care of Adam, so we were already on a very limited budget to begin with, and all the other places were asking for between $10,000 to $50,000. This was the only agency that was free, so it was amazing for us.
"I’m sure the waiting lists are much longer now, and we were really lucky,” Zuzana added.
Adam’s first service dog, Totem, was much taller than Shawn, the current dog. He is a lot stronger as well, which was more for Adam’s safety, because he would tend to run off. He would see a bird somewhere and would just run, not caring if there were cars coming. He used to be tethered to the dog so that he wouldn’t run away, says his family.
But Shawn is a much different dog, as Adam just needed more of a companion now, someone who is there in case he has some anxiety issues pop up.
Totem is now retired and still lives with the family.
“Totem is OK with not doing his job anymore, and Shawn is OK with Totem being there,” says Adam’s father, Mike.
Shawn is a focused dog and lets people around him know when there is something going on with Adam when he shuts down. The dog senses these changes and knows that something is up.
In the beginning before they had service dogs, even simple outings to the grocery store were a challenge for the Reed family.
“We’d go to the store and he’d have a meltdown, but you have to take him as he has to be introduced to things, and we’d hear, ‘You shouldn’t have kids if you’re not a good parent,'” Zuzana says. “And then with the dog, suddenly nobody is judging us anymore."
These were life-changing moments, indeed.
“And mom didn’t have to be a service dog anymore,” says she with a laugh.
“Since the dogs have come into our lives, it’s been great,” Mike says. “We’ve travelled to Europe and we’ve gone to Disneyland. He’s gained so much independence just having the dogs with him. He has more confidence to go and do things.
"If he is stressed in a situation, as long as Shawn is there, he’s willing to try.”
What is that special connection that Adam has with Shawn?
“Dependent independence is what I call it,” Zuzana says. “They are not always beside each other, but they are very in tune with each other. They don’t have to be beside each other all the time.”
“These dogs gave us our lives back,” Mike adds.
"(Shawn) is kind of like a brother to me,” explains Adam. “If I’m sad or angry, he will sit down in my lap and just cuddle me to make me more calm.”
Sometimes, they will let little kids pet Shawn while he is working with Adam, which is unheard of with most other service dog disciplines.
“With the autism program, it is usually OK as long as the kid (such as Adam) is the one telling the person that they can, because that lets Adam get involved with other people," Mike says. "It initiates communication, which is kind of what you want to achieve, to get him communicating with people."
Shawn is like Jekyll and Hyde in a certain way, they say. When the service dog vest is on, he’s all business and knows what the job is at hand and a true professional.
When the vest is removed, however, it’s like a switch has been flipped and he’s instantly ready to play, run around, roll around, and interact with everyone and anyone.
He works hard, but when he’s off the clock, he plays just as hard.
“Now we are hoping that by the time Adam is ready for a new service dog, he won’t need another service dog,” says Zuzana. “That’s our next goal.”
Shawn can then also move into retirement and be given a pat on the head for a job well done.
For more information on the Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides program, visit www.dogguides.com.