Sawyer Hamilton was different than other toddlers, according to his mother Kandace. Amongst other things, he didn’t seem to understand normal, inherent dangers. He would climb through screened windows and run away. He once dangled from his mother’s grasp on the back of his jacket when he almost ran straight off the edge of Bryce Canyon. He wasn’t very interested in other children, or playing with toys the way they did. By the age of three, doctors determined that Sawyer had autism; a diagnosis that affects about 1 in 88 people globally, according to a recent study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Living in Spanish Fork, Utah, Kandace was initially overwhelmed when she looked into various service dog programs in the year 2000, fueled by the observation that Sawyer seemed to interact better with animals than people. She finally found and applied to Canine Companions for Independence, a nonprofit organization located in California that provides service dogs to children and adults with disabilities at no charge. The application process and waiting period can be lengthy – it took two years for the Hamilton’s to receive their first dog: enter Hal, the black lab that was to make an enormous difference in Sawyer’s life.
Like many service dog organizations, Canine Companions for Independence have a strict breeding program to ensure they are producing sound, healthy dogs. These puppies go to volunteer puppy-raising families until they are about 15 months old, at which time they enter a 6-9 month training program where they learn upwards of 40 behaviours before being placed with a person in need.
While service dogs for people with autism are a little bit different than hearing assistance dogs or guide dogs for the blind, the difference they make in the lives of their humans are still immensely significant. Sawyer is in ninth grade now, having developed positively in ways his family, at one time, thought would not be possible. Most of his adverse behaviours have diminished; he takes the bus to and from school every day; he checks library books out 20 at a time, reading above his grade level. In Sawyer’s case, one of the biggest differences of having the service dog in his life has been the comfort it gives him at night. Whereas he used to wander around the house in the dark, he started to sleep straight through the night with the dog in bed with him.
In 2011, when Hal suddenly passed away, Sawyer started to slide downhill, showing more and more of his negative symptoms. He had lost his constant companion from whom he had been inseparable. In September of this year, the Hamiltons were granted their second service dog, a yellow lab named Topper. Now a teenager, Sawyer has once again flourished with a service dog at his side. The responsibility of having a dog, and having to take care of him, helped “pull him out of his own little world,” says Kandace. The companionship of the dog has allowed him a kind of freedom he would never otherwise experience. Sawyer once again sleeps through the night, is calm when on busy family outings, and his grades are soaring – scoring a perfect grade point average for the first time on his most recent report card. He plans to go to college too.
His mother says she cannot imagine where he would be if not for his service dogs.