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Specially-trained autism assistant dog transforms Summerside boy’s life

Porter Richard and his best friend Zito tackle life side-by-side.
Porter Richard and his best friend Zito tackle life side-by-side. - Contributed

When a black Labrador puppy came to live with Porter Richard and his family, the dog transformed their world.

Up until the dog’s arrival, life had been difficult.

But thanks to the Stratford and Area Lions Club which helped the family obtain the guide dog called Zito, everything has changed.

“Porter has classic autism on the severe end," said Porter’s mother, Raelene Richard. "When he was first diagnosed, just before his third birthday, he was considered complete non-verbal. Now, turning 10 this month, he has minimal language and uses an iPad to help communicate,”

Autism is a developmental disorder that makes social interaction and communication difficult.

A specially-trained autism assistant dog called Zito has transformed Porter Richard and his family’s life. - Desiree Anstey
A specially-trained autism assistant dog called Zito has transformed Porter Richard and his family’s life.

“If you turned your back for just a second – Porter would be gone, especially when we were outside," said Raelene. "We went to Halifax once and had an incident where we lost track of Porter and he was only on another swing set in the park, but the fear still got to us.”

There were times Porter would bolt straight for a busy road, undone by strange sounds, sights and smells, and his parents, Mark and Raelene, would rush in a heartbeat to scoop him up.

Getting a peaceful night’s sleep for the Summerside family was another story.

“Porter was not a great sleeper. Five days a week he would wake us at 3 a.m. It was hard on all of us,” said Raelene. “This is the main reason why we wanted an autism guide dog.”

After two years of waiting, Zito came into the family’s life through the Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides and opened up Porter’s world in October 2017.

Having a specially-trained autism assistant dog can cost about $25,000.

“Zito changed our lives,” said Raelene. “We went to the Charlottetown airport before we got the dog and Porter wouldn’t even go on the plane, but the following March break (2018), Zito was by Porter’s side and he walked right onto the plane without any anxiety. We flew to Florida.”

The loyal dog has diminished Porter’s anxiety about public places, improved his socialization skills, and even his sleep pattern.

“Everything just seems easier because you know now if you turn your back to look at something, Porter is holding on to the dog and not bolting off. We will never turn our heads for too long, but it’s an extra bit of peace of mind,” said Mark. “Before we were just functioning and now we actually live.”

Wherever Porter goes, whether attending Greenfield Elementary school, playing in the park or browsing in a store with his parents, Zito is right by his side.

“It’s like having your best friend with you all the time to tackle day-to-day life,” said Raelene. “Porter talks more, he will approach you and his sleeping pattern has improved to waking up at 6 or 7 a.m.”

The family plan to participate in the Walk for Guide Dogs, a fundraiser in support of the Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides, on Sunday, May 26.

“We are eternally grateful for the Stratford and Area Lions Club, as well as the Foundation for helping us at no cost. Having Zito is such a weight off our shoulders. And for all the people that assisted, trained, and integrated the dog with Porter and his surroundings, it made a huge difference," said Raelene. "Zito is not only a calming presence but a member of our family now.”z

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