Service dog helps Heights girl

Riley and Jingle (photo by Simone Quartell)

In October, nine-year-old Riley O'Neill of Cleveland Heights welcomed Jingle, a service dog from 4 Paws For Ability, to help her with her Asperger's syndrome.

Riley and her family traveled to the 4 Paws headquarters in Xenia, Ohio, to receive training with Jingle. The family spent 10 days receiving full-day training. While in Xenia, they learned commands for Jingle and how to walk her, among other things.

Jingle's training began long before she met the O'Neill family. The one-year-old dog, part Australian shepherd, and part boxer, is now in her fifth home. After being rescued at a Kentucky shelter and taken to 4 Paws, Jingle was placed with a foster family, where she learned basic obedience.

Asperger's is an autism-related syndrome that can make it difficult for a person to pick up social cues—and therefore become easily frustrated. Riley's mother, Michelle O’Neill, said the goal is for Jingle to calm Riley before she has a "full-blown meltdown." Currently, Jingle is alerted if Riley starts to become upset and comes to calm her down. If Riley calms down, she then gives Jingle a treat (only Riley can give Jingle treats).

Jingle accompanies Riley to martial arts class and cello lessons. 4 Paws recommends that dogs not go to school until the child and dog have a good rapport. Riley will be home schooled for the remainder of fourth grade to help build that bond.

Jingle has been helpful at home and is "a source of comfort" to Riley, O’Neill said. The dog sleeps in Riley's room and responds immediately when Riley becomes distressed, which O’Neill credits for a decrease in the severity of Riley's meltdowns. Jingle comes along anywhere that may be stressful for Riley, and will join the family on vacations.

4 Paws for Ability was founded by Karen Shirk, who has a service dog to help her with myasthenia gravis, a neuromuscular disease. Shirk believes it was because of her dog that she is alive today. As of January 2010, the organization has provided over 500 service dogs.

To prevent wealthier families from having an advantage, 4 Paws does not allow families to pay for the service dogs, but requires them instead to raise funds for the organization. Riley's story, including a donation request, was printed in the December 2008 Heights Observer, and the family completed their fundraising ($11,000) in less than two months.

"We are very grateful to the community for that," Michelle O’Neill said.

Simone Quartell is a 2009 graduate of Cleveland Heights High School and is studying journalism at Kent State University. 

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Volume 3, Issue 2, Posted 11:54 AM, 01.11.2010