PENHOLD — Gatsby is truly just about the greatest thing that has come into Slater Gibson’s life in the last year.
The 12-year-old was a little leery at first welcoming the young Labrador retriever into his home at first last spring but the two are now a “team” Slater’s dad Mike said Saturday.
Gatsby is a specially trained pet geared to act as a companion for Slater who is autistic.
The dog still acts like a pup and is quick to flop on a stranger’s foot while gnawing on his own favourite toy in the living room.
Gatsby has helped change Slater’s life for the good, Mike said.
“Gatsby is his best friend. They have a direct link because Slater is in his own world,” Mike said.
“Slater will sit on him and Gatsby will lick his face.
“The main thing is he has someone . . . . a special friend.”
At first Slater was a little afraid of Gatsby because he thought he might run away or when walking down steps the dog would go ahead and pull on Slater.
“It’s fine now. When he’s hooked up he now trusts him,” Mike said.
“They’re a real team. Slater feels safe with him around.”
Autism is a brain disorder characterized by impaired social interaction and communication and by restricted repetitive behaviour.
The family has noticed that Slater is not as anxious in public now.
“He’s more confident now when he goes out,” Mike said.
“It’s more a little adventure now when they go out.”
Gatsby can be commanded to stay on one spot in a store for example with Slater attached to him.
Slater loves Barney the animated dinosaur and is adept at running Barney’s tapes on the television.
“Slater loves the happy type music and will fast forward or rewind to spots on the disc that have his favourite music,” Mike said.
Mike’s wife Tracy went back to Cambridge, Ont., for a week’s training in May with Gatsby who is a product of the National Service Dogs which trains labs and golden retrievers to care for children with autism and special needs.
Gatsby is trained to wear a special harness with a handle that Slater hangs onto when they go on outings.
When the family goes to a shopping mall many people like to come up and pet the dog but a sign on his harness says he can’t be petted right now because he’s working, laughs Mike.
Slater is attending Parkland School for special needs children now but Gatsby doesn’t attend.
Mike says it’s because other students might not know how to react to Gatsby’s presence.
The Gibsons had to wait three years and help raise funds while waited for the dog.
Mike says there’s a large demand for the animals.
The community pitched in as did Mike’s employer Trican Well Service and the Purina Petcare in Innisfail.
Petland in Red Deer also donated funds through its Paws for Autism campaign.
Milkbone and Walmart teamed up in Edmonton to donate funds as well.
“The community support has been wonderful,” Mike said.