BLAINE, Minn. - Each morning the feet of hundreds of students shuffle off their buses and through the halls of Roosevelt Middle School in Blaine. This year, for the first time ever, four of those feet belong to a special educational aid that is changing the life of one student, who is in the midst of a jaw-dropping turnaround.
"It’s been amazing. Truly amazing," marveled science teacher Bobbi Jo Rzeszutek.
In some ways, Sophia Reither is a typical sixth grader, described by her mom as silly, adventurous and headstrong. There is another word, however, that has defined her life more than others.
"Autism," explained Sophia's mom Michele Reither. "She is autistic, and she is socially awkward… and she is not understood by most people. She is also a selective mute, which means she doesn’t communicate the same way as other kids."
Through most of her elementary school years, Sophia did not communicate at all, refusing to speak to teachers or fellow students. She was prone to tantrums, and occasionally aggressive behavior. Life was chaotic both at school and home, where her parents had to sleep with her at night to help fend off night terrors, and make sure Sophia wouldn't flee. Routine activities like a trip to a restaurant or shopping were a dicey affair, with the chance of a meltdown looming just a moment away.
Michele Reither embarked on a endless road of therapies and other efforts to reach her daughter before reading about the power of animals to reach children with autism. She took Sophia to equine therapy, where the little girl interacted with a horse and the results were astounding.
"Sophia connected with the horse immediately," recalled Michele. "We got more out of an hour session with a horse than we did in a week of her swinging on a swing, $500 an hour therapy. We did more in a one hour, she’d come off smiling and talk about the horse."
Encouraged, the family adopted a dog with mixed results. Sophia liked the little golden retriever, but the dog was confused by her yelling, fits on the floor and inconsistent behavior. Then the family heard about Can Do Canines, applied for an assistance dog, and in March a match was made with Rylee. Trainers knew the affectionate, laid-back black lab would be a perfect match for Sophia, and they were right. The dog senses when Sophia is melting down, and will nuzzle or lay by her to fend off an emotional incident.
"For me, the fundamentals have changed our family routine," Michele Reither said. "For her, she partners with the dog. If she’s having a hard time or melts down, she talks to Rylee. She believes Rylee talks to her. She says ‘Rylee, I know Mom’s mean, she’s making us clean our room,’ and Rylee must say, ‘Yeah she is, let’s do it anyway,’ because all of a sudden Sophia is cleaning up her room."
"The dog doesn’t judge her," Reither continued. "She can melt down, cry, and she’ll call the dog over and the dog will lick her face and say ‘it’s OK, we’re going to get through this.'"
Sophia's transformation has taken place at school as well. She is raising her hand in class and contributing, interacting with classmates and avoiding meltdowns, and everyone agrees that the reason is Rylee.
"It brings out a person in Sophia that I don’t’ think her teachers saw in elementary school," opined veteran math teacher Jill Augustine. "She’s volunteering, she can unclip herself from the dog, she goes to the board, is raising her hand, is a whole participant, and it’s just been incredible and exciting to see."
"Many times, in order to get the reassurance she bends down and touches Rylee, and then sits back up and is right back as part of the class," explained science teacher Bobbi Jo Rzeszutek, "So it’s been really good for her. Rylee just has a presence. She is tethered to Sophia and when they come in the room we have a special mat that Rylee knows to go down and she’s right across Sophia’s feet, so she gives Sophia kind of that guard, ‘I’m here if you need me'."
Rylee goes to every class with Sophia, and immediately lays down under her desk. When the 11-year-old is struggling with a subject, becoming anxious, stressed, or needing reassurance, relief is close at hand.
"When I feel overwhelmed she comes next to me and visits, puts her head on my leg," Sophia said.
When she is on the verge of a major meltdown, Sophia climbs down on the floor with Rylee, nuzzles with the gentle black lab and calm slowly returns.
"Because I know she’s there, and she helps me get my work done," she said.
Rylee has only been with Sophia and the Reither family for about five months, but the process of training an assistance dog, matching it with a person in need and then preparing the two to be partners takes much longer than that. It is also an expensive process: Can Do Canines says the price tag on training a dog is about $25,000. The family matched with that dog doesn't pay anything up front, but assumes the cost of care for their animal.
Each fall Can Do Canines holds an event to help defray the cost of training their assistance dogs. The Fetching Ball is set for Saturday, Nov. 12. Early bird tickets are available for $95 until Oct. 28, and that includes a dinner, dessert and entertainment. VIP packages are also available. For more information log onto the Can Do Canines website.
The impact of this program is huge, both for the present and the hope it provides clients for the future.
"It’s given her freedom, and it’s also given us an idea she’ll be able to work, hold a job, connect and communicate with people," said Michele Reither. "We didn’t know if she’d have any of that in her. She’s a different kid."