CARLSBAD>> The Harris family’s newest member has a tough job.
Cypress, a 1-year-old Labrador, completed his training as a service dog with 4 Paws for Ability and now acts as a companion to 6-year-old Aaron Harris who is autistic. “Cy,” as the family calls him, has spent his first week in the family’s Carlsbad home building a bond with his new friend. Chris and Joetta Harris’ middle child, Aaron, was diagnosed with cortical dysplasia, epilepsy and autism. Joetta Harris said that after a year considering the option and doing research, her and her husband decided that a service dog was in Aaron’s best interest. Aaron was prone to wander, a symptom of his autism that has caused his parents plenty of worry.
The family traveled to Ohio where they spent two weeks working with representatives of 4 Paws for Service who trained the dog to meet the special needs of their son. The couple graduated with honors after learning how to handle “Cy.” “For us it’s peace of mind,” said Joetta Harris. Among Cy’s most important skills is his ability to track Aaron, but his job doesn’t end there. “The dog is trained to lay on top of his legs when he has seizures, and he does something called ‘nuzzle’ because (Aaron) bites his arm, and his job is to distract him from that. Cy has a million commands. He’s very well trained,” Joetta said. Cy is one of the thousands of animals 4 Paws for Ability, a nonprofit organization, has placed with children, vets and persons with disability. The family said they are grateful to the Carlsbad community who pitched in to help raise the $13,000 donation needed to get a service dog for their son. “We have a lot of appreciation for the community and gratitude. Regardless of what they could give … without them we wouldn’t have this dog,” Joetta said. Her and her husband traveled to Xenia, Ohio with Aaron earlier this month where they spent two weeks in handler training, learning to interact with Cy. “I’ve had other dogs but this is so different. You can’t treat him like a pet because he’s not,” she said. The family had to go through a public access test before being cleared to bring Cy home, a return trip that allowed Chris and Joetta to see Cy in action as he accompanied Aaron onto the plane.
Since then the family’s priority has been to build the bond between Cy and Aaron. “Aaron knows he’s there. He’ll pet him with his feet … he’ll bring him toys. His favorite thing is to watch Cy eat. The bond between Aaron and Cy needs to be really strong,” Joetta said. Friday morning the family worked on Cy’s tracking ability, rewarding him with treats when he successfully found Aaron in a nearby park. “Tracking is a game to him, it’s not like it is for us where we panic when it happens,” Joetta said. The Harrises said that the hard work of learning to handle their new family member has paid off, though they expect there to be glitches with how Cy is received in certain locations while on duty. The American Disabilities Act gives service dogs complete access to anyplace their companions are allowed. “Cy can go to a restaurant, he can go to the store. Aaron can be tethered to him and Cy guide him,” Joetta said. “We’ve only had him for a week and already we see the change and help it’s given our family.”