He’s doggedly determined to train up some canine assistance

Wellesley man with Asperger’s Syndrome turns to Go Fund Me account to help train service dog

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Wellesley man with Asperger’s Syndrome turns to Go Fund Me account for assistance to train service dog
Justin Leckie and Eponine spend some time at the mall training for her service dog test. [Faisal Ali / The Observer]
It’s too hot to work outside, so instead Justin Leckie and Eponine go the mall to train.

It’s a Friday evening, so the place is crowded, heavy with smells and sounds that reverberate off the walls in all directions. Right now, they’re practicing heeling and turning. The trick, says Eponine’s trainer Doug Chivas, is to raise a knee with every step in front of the dog’s line of sight as you turn. It gives the dog a visual cue to change directions with its handler.

Eponine struggles a bit to get the maneuver down, and with all the noise and distractions she bumps into Leckie a few times while they practice. Still, this is only Eponine’s third lesson. She is just a service dog-in-training, and has a ways to go yet.

At four-years-old, the rough collie is a little old to start training as a service dog when most start as pups. But a good service dog is hard to come by, especially for a 28-year-old like Leckie, while training one from the start is a time consuming and expensive process.

So instead, Leckie is raising the money to train his own service dog through the fundraising website Go Fund Me, where he’s asking for the public’s help.

At the age of 15, the Wellesley resident was given a dual diagnosis of high-functioning Asperger’s Syndrome, a condition on the autism disorder spectrum, and chronic anxiety. Individually, the afflictions can be a formidable challenge for anyone to get around; but together, they can be downright debilitating, to the point that Leckie has not been able to live the productive life he wants.

“It’s really the anxiety that causes problems day-to-day,” explains Lisa Ackey, a counsellor with the Interfaith Counselling Centre who has been working with Leckie and his family for years. “The anxiety is a result of his very rigid thinking patterns that comes with Asperger’s or autism.”

Because of his condition, she says, Leckie has had immense difficulty working and studying and just living, while the combination of Asperger’s and anxiety makes it difficult to treat. “It’s just the way his brain is wired.”

Last year, after a full assessment Leckie’s psychiatrist recommended that he get himself a service dog to help him cope with the often overwhelming anxieties.

“There’s lots of research that shows service dogs are effective to provide the emotional support for individuals who have diagnoses on the autism spectrum,” says Ackey.

Service dogs have been well recognized as an effective therapy for people with autism spectrum disorders – particularly children and adolescents – and there are several organizations in Canada like the National Service Dogs, Autism Support Dogs and Autism Dog Services Inc., that provide this service.

Through emotional support and physical contact, the dog can help it’s owner overcome issues commonly associated with autism, explains Chivas, who has been training service dogs for people with autism for years. It can be as simple as providing a nudge, or resting a head in its owner’s lap. As the dog develops a relationship to its owner, it even learns to intuit its owner’s state of mind.

“Then what happens is the dog can sense changes in maybe mood or whatever with an individual, and picks up on that change and what they’ll do is say ‘OK, I’m going to respond to that.’ Now it doesn’t happen overnight, it’s something that develops over a period of time.”

Leckie tried to get a service dog through those organizations, but was told that he was above the age limit to qualify for a service dog. Chivas says the reason is that that there is such a tremendous demand for service dogs that these organizations have to impose age restrictions to manage.

“What’s happened is it’s just the laws of supply and demand. There’s so many individuals out there that are looking for service dogs.”

So instead Leckie hired Chivas, who works at Canine Support Services, a private dog training company, to train Eponine to become a service dog. Eponine has an aptitude for being a service dog, but she will still need a lot of training and a lot of time to pass the test and become a full-fledged service dog, says Chivas.

While Eponine is still training, though, Ackey says she can already see the effect Eponine is having on Leckie just by being with him. The hope is that with Eponine at his side, Leckie will be able to become more independent, start attending school regularly, get a job, and all the rest of it that he deserves.

“The relief experienced as soon as the dog was purchased and knowing that there was going to be an end in sight, it’s just amazing to see the changes already,” said Ackey.

Leckie’s family is willing to help with the ongoing costs of caring for the dog. But, to pay for the training, Leckie is looking to the community for help: He’s hoping to raise $5,000 to pay for Eponine’s training and to have her spayed.

Anyone interested in contributing to Leckie’s cause can go to www.gofundme.com/eponine. Alternatively, people can drop of contributions at the Interfaith Counselling Centre at 23B Church St., New Hamburg.