Eivind and Amy Brendtro have an autism service dog named May to assist with their two special needs children Linnea, 9, and Leif, 6. May, a 3-year-old golden retriever, was trained at 4 Paws for Ability and helps track the children when they get lost, she helps with behavior assistance by comforting them, and the kids are tethered to her in public to ensure their safety. BILL ROTH / Anchorage Daily News
What kind of anxiety-filled parenting scenarios play out when you have two children under 10, one with autism and one with Down syndrome and autism?
Try this: Three years ago, Amy Brendtro was with Linnea, then 6, who has Down syndrome and autism, and Leif, then 3, who is also autistic, in a hotel elevator. When they got to their floor, Amy led Leif out the door, but Linnea didn't follow. Instead, she pushed the button to close the doors. Before Amy could grab her, the doors rolled shut. Linnea, alone, rode down to the pool level. Linnea can't swim. Drowning is the leading cause of accidental death for children with autism.
"I couldn't get down the stairs fast enough," Amy told me.
Linnea didn't go in the pool, and everything turned out OK. But Amy had a realization: She and her husband, Eivind, needed help. Three years later, help showed on four legs, with blond fur and an affection for tennis balls. It was May, their autism service dog.
Photographer Bill Roth and I went to visit the Brendtros one afternoon a few weeks ago to meet May and the kids. When we got there, Linnea, who can't speak, used a small computer to tell her mother that she wanted to watch cartoons. Just as Amy pushed play on the TV, a bus arrived to drop off Leif. Amy took May to the bus to meet him. When they passed me, Leif's hand was buried in May's fur. Amy turned his head so that he would make eye contact with me and reminded him to say "Hi."
Leif went right to his room and slammed the door. Amy said he was overwhelmed. He crawls under his bed to calm himself. May parked herself outside his door.
Life with Linnea and Leif means being on all the time when they are not in school, Amy said. Formerly a teacher, she quit work to be with her children full-time after Linnea was born. Every day has a lesson plan. She wants the children to know how to survive in the world, to sleep through the night, to communicate as best they can, to pick up their clothes, to understand where trash goes. Normal developmental things like walking and potty training have taken tremendous effort. Both kids can be unpredictable. Both have a tendency to wander. The house has locks and alarms on the doors and windows.
The Brendtros decided to get a service dog after the elevator incident. May comes from a trainer called 4 Paws for Ability in Ohio. To get her, they had to raise $13,000. Amy cashed out her retirement. Friends and co-workers of Eivind's in the Alaska Air National Guard helped raise the rest. It took five months to get the money together and another year to get May.
"We had to ask ourselves, if something happened to one of the kids, and we knew there was a possibility of getting the dog and it would have helped, it didn't matter what it took," Amy said. "If something happened, you'd spend your whole life regretting it."
The afternoon Bill and I visited, Leif kept repeating, "Smile, say cheese. Smile, say cheese." He wasn't used to Bill's camera. To help him calm down, Amy coaxed him on to the floor and then asked May to gently lay over his stomach. He squirmed and howled, but the pressure eventually settled him down.
May's most important skill is tracking. She has been trained to find the children when they wander off. Last summer, Amy was playing with Leif and May in the backyard. Linnea was listening to music inside. All of a sudden, Amy noticed that May was gone.
Linnea had pulled a chair up to the front door and opened the lock that is installed out of reach. She was in the driveway by the time Amy caught up with her. May was right next to her.
They got the dog for the children, Amy said, but May helps her and Eivind just as much by giving them peace of mind. She used to be afraid to go to sleep, worried the children would wake up and get into trouble. But now she knows that May, who sleeps outside their doors, will look after them.
"She probably has lessened my stress 50 to 75 percent," she said.
Eivind told me May also helps ease strangers' awkwardness in public.
"People don't look at you like 'What's wrong with your kids?' " he said. When you have the dog, then they go, 'Oh, they have disabilities.' "
Amy and Eivind take the children, tethered to the dog, to the grocery store now. They can go out to eat. May lies under the table and the children touch her with their stocking feet. In April, the family went on its first vacation to a camp for children with disabilities.
While we were visiting, Eivind came home. Everyone got excited, including May. She was hoping he'd throw the tennis ball. They decided to do a training exercise. Eivind hid in the backyard with Linnea. Amy and Leif went into the house with May.
"Where's your girl? Find your girl," Amy said to May. May whimpered at the door and when Amy opened it, she burst out, making her neck tall, scanning the yard. Then she put her nose down and followed Linnea's scent to the backyard, easily discovering her with Eivind behind the shed.
For her labors, Amy gave her some hot dog. As she chewed it, a child on either side of her, it almost looked like she was smiling.