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Service dog could improve more than just student's education

August 13, 2014 - By Meg Peters

Review Staff Writer

For an 11-year-old who doesn't think he fits in anywhere in the Lake Orion Community Schools, having Max around could mean the start of a new life for Zackary Jurj

Zackary will be entering the sixth grade at Oakview Middle School September 2 with his fellow peers while his dog Max finishes up training in Illinois to become a service dog.

This will be Zakary first year in the district's Emotional Impairment (EI) special education program offered at Oakview. He will be a regular general education student until he needs special assistance, and can be relocated to a resource room to work with special ed. staff, paraprofessionals and/or reading interventionists.

The 18-month-old white goldendoodle could be Zackary ticket to self-regulating.  

Almost 800 students are enrolled in the special education programs, including an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) program, Emotional Impairment (EI) program, and a Cognitive Impairment (CI) program. Of the near 800, the district sends 14 students to a center-based program outside of Lake Orion.

Although Zackary qualified for the ASD program, the Jurj's requested that he attend his neighborhood middle school, Oakview. Zackary, although not too excited about it, will begin in the EI program.

"It's heartbreaking because he wants to be a normal kid and it's not working out so far," his mother Crissy Jurj said.

Zackary was diagnosed with high functioning autism in May 2013 when the Autism Spectrum Disorder was reclassified in the Diagnostic and Statistical  Manual of Mental Disorders fifth edition (DSM-5).

Prior to the change, DSM-4 regulations classified patients into four separate disorders: autistic disorder, Asperger's disorder, childhood disintegrative disorder, or the "catch all" disorder of pervasive developmental disorder, according to the American Psychiatric Association www.dsm5.org.

Before 2013, Zackary had Asperger's but the same mobile and behavioral impairments.

"I think it loses some kids," Crissy Jurj said. "I think some of the higher functioning conditions are very specific for the diagnosis now."

Zackary's mobility and emotional conditions are the main factors.

An issue with his vestibular system affects his mobility and spatial orientation, causing him to bump into objects, lose his balance or fall over.

"He will drag his hand along the wall to know where he is and the way he walks is a little clumsy," Crissy Jurj said. "We went to the zoo a few weeks ago and we didn't make it six steps out of the car before he fell."

Unlike many service dogs, Max will have a harness with a handle to help steer Zackary through Oakview's halls during the high student volume times between classes. The dog is not meant to bare his total weight, but act more as a guide, like a table or chair to run a hand across.

Zackary also has social and emotional issues which sometimes lead to meltdowns. He is easily over stimulated by lights and sounds, which he remedies with self-stimulating, behavior such as sucking his fingers or flapping his hands.

While he desperately tries to be a "normal kid" and sit through general ed. classes, his anxiety and stress build to the point where he might tear up his homework, knock his music over in band class or push a desk in the resource room.

Zackary's pediatrician backs the Jurj's decision 100 percent and wrote letters advocating the use of a service dog.

"We are still at that point where we are not self-regulating," Crissy Jurj said. "Hopefully this will eliminate having to have an adult with him at all times, to help him in school during stressful situations, the meltdowns, and to give him a little more independence. I'm excited, I can't wait."

Zackary is even more excited for his new best friend.

"He reminds me of a Pokemon," he said of the famed cartoon anime. "You have to take care of him. You have to get him food. You have to put him in daycare like a Pokemon, and you have to take them to the doctor. You've got to train them, except he's not good for battling, he's good for being cute."

After Max finishes his training at Committed Canine in Illinois he will be the second service dog in the Lake Orion district. The other service dog is for a student who wanders away, the canine is his tracker.

"The student may wander off, so his dog provides him safety because if he were to walk out of the school building the dog would give us direction with exactly where to go," Julie Stucky said, Lake Orion Special Education Department Director.

Under the current American Disabilities Act (ADA) charter, a service dog must be individually trained to perform tasks or do work for a person with a disability.

In 2011, the ADA charter expanded to include both physical and mental impairments, as written in Section 1630.2 (h), which had not been defined in the original ADA.

"Examples of such work or tasks include guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, alerting or protecting a person who is having a seizure, reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications, calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder during an anxiety attack, or performing other duties. Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA," according to the ADA website.

 Tammie Rogers, Max's current trainer at Committed Canine, is training Max to perform several tasks the Jurj's requested, including motor skill support, "lap" behavior, where the dog will put his paws or full body across the child's lap to calm him down, "say hello" as a social ice-breaker to enhance social interactions, subtle cue "touch" or "nudge" which can be used to exit stressful situations in a more socially appropriate manner, and high standard public access obedience, which Zackary must practice daily to develop greater independence and self-reliance.

Technically, according to the charter, a person could self-train their service dog.

"There is no certification process in our country," Rogers said. "The ADA's charter is to make life as a disabled person in the U.S. as seamless as possible. The charter is not to tell someone in a wheelchair that they need a certain model, or if you need a cane it must support a certain weight."

To apply to the Committed Canine training program, the Jurj's filled out an application describing Zackary's disability and filled out a "wish list" of tasks that could help mitigate the issues he runs into in the real world.

Rogers said Max will qualify as a service dog for two specific functions. With his harness, Max will alleviate Zackary balance issues and his wobbles as he is walking down the hall. Secondly, Max will help with the meltdowns.

"The dog will do something like nudge him or paw him. This gives the person who is feeling so anxious they might have a meltdown a chance to take his dog outside," Rogers explained.

According to Stucky, as long as the Jurj's provide documentation from their trainer signifying him as a service dog, along with information in Zackary's Individualized Education Program (IEP) that would support Max as a supplemental service, he would function as a service dog and thus be legally allowed in the schools. 

"Ultimately what the child needs we provide so they can progress," Stucky said. "If they need something like a service dog, or a test read, we provide it, but there has to be a need, and it has to work too."

Crissy Jurj said Max will be most helpful in transitioning Zackary to middle school, where the class periods are shorter, the halls are more crowded, and the stimulation generally more stressful.

"He wants to be like his normal typical peers, so he will force himself to sit in a general ed. classroom to the point of the anxiety and frustration," she said. "Max will be able to signal him that he needs to go for a walk so Zackary won't stand out so much. Eventually that will become automatic, Max will pick up on Zackary's body language, tone of voice and pitch of voice."

Max finishes his training the beginning of October. Crissy and Zackary Jurj will get to take Max home after Zakary and Max complete Roger's Public Access Test.

The access test assesses Max and Zackary's interactions in three different settings: a restaurant, department store and public place like a park.

After passing the test, including a written test, and paying the other half of the training, Max will become a Jurj.

Crissy Jurj paid the initial deposit of $3,000 but still needs to raise an additional $3,300 for program costs and travel to Illinois.

Interested donors can make an online contribution at the Jurj's Go Fund Me account on their Facebook page Zackary's "Dog Path." Donations can also be mailed to Zackary's Dog Path c/o Jurj P.O. Box 649 Lake Orion, MI 48362.

Donations that exceed their needs will be given to local charities such as Soul Sisters.

"If you don't live it you don't know it, and that's not necessarily a bad thing," Crissy Jurj said. "It's just what it is. I've learned a lot in the last five years. You really have to be your child's number one advocate."

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