For the first time ever in School District 27, there has been an autism service dog attending elementary school in Williams Lake.
Sam, a three-year-old blonde lab with a black birthmark on his left cheek, is coming full-time to support six-year-old Liam Hollet.
The dog has put in a full day’s work, five days a week at Chilcotin Road Elementary School since the end of September 2022. He also lives with Liam and his family.
“Sam has done remarkable things,” said mom Crystal Taratus, noting Liam has made significant progress and gone from being non-verbal to talking and communicating with the help of Sam.
“He provides comfort, therapy, fine motor skill development, regulates Liam’s moods and stops his flight risk.”
Sam and Liam travel on a school bus for children with special needs.
When they arrive they are greeted most days by principal Gregg Gaylord who takes Sam off the bus and into Melissa Porter’s Grade One class while Liam, with an iPad in hand, goes into the playground to wait with other students until it is time to go inside.
While the family lives in Wildwood, his mom, Crystal Taratus, requested Chilcotin Road as her school of choice because the grounds are fully-fenced. One of her son’s autistic traits is being a flight risk, although she said he has settled down considerably since Sam came into their lives in July of 2021.
Tethered to the table where Liam sits in the classroom, Sam waits quietly for the 22 students and the teacher to arrive.
He is wearing his service dog vest which signals to everyone in the school that he is working and should not be petted. Through a presentation to the school, and the classroom, Crystal explained the role of Sam in Liam’s life and Gaylord said all the students know what Sam’s blue vest means.
“It has been a learning experience for the whole school,” Gaylord said. “Sam is the first service dog in the district and the school board had to develop a policy for service dogs.”
Gaylord said the students have been great.
“Sam’s not only helping Liam, he’s helping others as well. I’m hoping with the need for service dogs and complex needs we will see more of them in our district.”
Liam was born in June 2016.
After constant ear infections, visits to specialists because his speech was delayed, surgery for his ears, which did not seem to help his hearing, he was officially diagnosed with autism on Dec. 12, 2018 by a doctor in Kamloops.
The doctor told Crystal a service dog would be great and she began advocating for that to happen.
To qualify, she had to get Liam on the Registry of Autism Service Providers. Eventually she was successful and applied, but in 2019 was told her application was denied because they were living in Interior Health. Going through several more hoops she was contacted by Thornton who sent her an application.
“I had to have references, measurements of my house and that I owned it.”
Then COVID-19 hit, her application was lost, and she was busy with another son who was born in May 2019.
In March 2021, she was notified by B.C. and Alberta Guide Dogs that Liam was a candidate for a dog.
Crystal and Liam travelled to Surrey for an eye appointment for Liam and afterwards they met Nacho, and two-and-a-half year old lab.
“Liam was OK with the dog and we practiced with him being attached to the dog at the waist by a tether. Our trainer said he was awesome.”
The final approval did not come through for Nacho, but on April 26, 2021, Crystal received a letter saying she was approved but the wait could be two years.
Then in June they called and said they had another dog, his name is Sam, and he was Nacho’s brother.
For two weeks Crystal worked with a trainer and Sam in Williams Lake. The trainer stayed in a hotel and Sam stayed with Crystal’s family.
During the first week it was just Crystal, Danielle the trainer, and Sam. Danielle was reportedly happy with how fast they bonded.
In the second week they added Liam and it was a bit more difficult.
Liam realized his independence was being taken away and he had a few melt downs, his mom said.
Wednesday of that second week he became very frustrated and kicked the dog, something he had never done before.
Crystal’s mom Betty said she thinks he was trying to kick his mom but Sam was in between the two of them.
In the end Sam stayed and moving forward, Crystal had to send videos every two weeks of them working together.
“It was a rocky road,” she recalled.
School policy on guide dogs
The next step was to contact SD 27 Supt. Chris van der Mark and tell him the district needed a policy for service dogs in the schools because Liam had one.
When the first day of school rolled around in 2021, however, Liam went off to kindergarten without Sam. They had to wait for the policy to be in place which was in place by Sept. 29, 2022.
SD 27 Supt. Chris van der Mark said the policy emerged after some research was done to what policies were in existence.
“A key part of it was that we had a really good collaboration in the policy development phase with the district, the school and the family so the transition could be positive,” he said.
Van der Mark has met Sam and admitted to being a ‘bit of a dog-fan.”
“Certainly the possibilities are there to have more service dogs, I don’t see why not,” he said, adding he is not aware at this point of any requests for more from families.
To date he has not heard any concerns about having Sam at the school.
“The policy work was super important. When we know of the possibility of something it really increases our ability to plan for it. You can research, you can look at the implications, you can make sure that you know what some of the issues are that might exist so you plan better.”
Van der Mark thanked Crystal and her family.
“As you may be aware, there was a lot of education and training for students and staff and at the end of the day we are super thrilled to have Sam as a part of our school community.”
Crystal hopes her experience will help others because it has been very positive to see what an autism service dog has done for her own family.
As she makes her way around Williams Lake, she often has people stop and ask her about Sam and what being a service dog means.
Gaylord was her Grade 8 gym teacher and she praised him for “taking on a lot” by having Sam in the school.
“He is the best person at this point to help my autistic son,” she said of Gaylord. “He calls me to let me know how Liam’s day has gone and took on being one of Sam’s main handlers.”
Raising a service dog
Bill Thornton and his wife Linda co-founded B.C. and Alberta Guide Dogs in 1996, the place where Sam originated.
They only breed labs through their own breeding program.
On a Friday in November when Bill was interviewed over the phone from his home in Delta, he said Linda had been out all night because new puppies were being born.
“There are seven puppies so far and we are expecting eight,” he said.
At seven to eight weeks of age the puppies go to volunteer foster families up until they are about 15 months old.
In the future the Thorntons hope to build a canine breeding and neonatal centre. About 90 puppies are being born a year and that number is increasing to well over 100.
The intent is to breed only for a purpose, not to sell them. All the dogs are neutered before they leave.
After that, they go to guide dog school for 18 to 25 weeks where they are trained either as a guide dog, an autism service dog or an OSI-PTSD dog.
About 72 per cent of the dogs end up living with a family with a person who has a disability. The other dogs will be designated as very special placement (VSP) dogs to support those families.
About $35,000 is invested into a service dog with the B.C. and Alberta Guide Dogs. The Hollet family were able to sign a contract for Sam for $1 and are responsible for his vets bills and food for the rest of his life.