New Mexico's Pet Resource WINTER 2002



Text and photos by Victoria Walton Chirieleison

The silent language of communication that exists between animals is something from which we can all learn. The language between animals is non-violent and trusting. Therapeutic programs using animals to help youngsters and adults with disabilities are springing up all over the country in different forms be it independent or within classrooms.

Xandy and Holly out for a drive.

Our son was born ten years ago. When he was two and not yet talking, he was diagnosed with autism, a disability that has communication as one of its primary disorders. Not only do children have more difficulty learning to speak; they also have an inherent challenge of an auditory processing disorder that makes processing the spoken word difficult. Sometimes it takes minutes before a request or suggestion is processed so that the person can understand it and respond appropriately. This puts some children and adults with autism very much into their own world.

When our son, Xandy was three we adopted a red golden retriever from the Canine Companions program. Her name is Holly. Holly's goal as part of our family was to try to get Xandy to speak and to foster independence. We had high hopes that the bonding that occurs between children and pets would provide some intrinsic support to help him with his communication disorder. Holly and Xandy went everywhere together for the first six months, until he began an intensive school program. We began to hear monosyllables relating to Holly and what she should be doing. "Holly, come," "Holly, sit." Pretty soon, the words were translating into short three-word sentences.

Xandy rides in the arroyo near his home.

At the same time, Xandy took up horseback riding through a local therapeutic riding program run by Challenge New Mexico. The words would tumble out as he trotted around the ring, a tiny tot aboard a horse of much greater size. He also worked on co-ordination skills through games and again the silent communication that occurs between animals and often, humans.

As Xandy has gotten older, we have found that animals used as therapeutic tools have taught valuable lessons. They have given him lessons in friendship and supplied him with emotional bonds that help bridge his world to those of his peers. When school was not engaging he could succeed on the back of a horse. He has learned to ride independently. Xandy has learned to respect and care for animals. This fall he was given a wonderful gift of a horse of his own. He regularly grooms Jake and works him out in the round pen. He has built a fort in the small barn so he can spend more time being around his horse. We see him nuzzling with Jake. I asked him the other day about what they say to each other. Xandy replied, "I talk to my horse and my horse talks to me."

It’s about trust, respect and communication.

Victoria Walton Chirieleison is the north central regional parent co-ordinator for the SouthWest Autism Network. She also coaches and teaches all levels of swimming.


by Alexandra Kolkmeyer
photos by Maggie Heinzel-Neel

Our 18-year-old son, Sonny, awoke from his surgery and screamed. "Reynolds," he yelled, his mouth and nose filled with the effects of anesthesia. "Come here!"

He didn't call for Mom. He didn't even ask for his favorite person in the world, Dad, whom he refers to as Dr. Feelgood, Dad's DJ name. No, he much preferred his best friend, the 105-pound Golden Labrador asleep near the heart monitor. Reynolds ran over to the bed and put his huge head on the mattress to comfort Sonny.

Sonny was born with Down's syndrome. After 12 surgeries, we were grateful for the place Reynolds had in Sonny's life; competing with a dog wasn't a bad thing. After all, it had taken a couple of years before Reynolds realized that the person in the hospital bed could only speak about 500 words. But when Sonny called his name now, he could understand the message, even though the words were not well articulated. It was a happy accident to get these two together.

Reynolds Dog and Sonny
cruise the 'hood.

I found out about Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) through an Ann Landers column. We got on CCI's waiting list for what seemed to be forever. Finally, two days before Hanukkah, we got a call. They had a dog. He wasn't perfect, but did we want to come out and train with them for two weeks? We did. When we arrived, we walked into a kennel of 20 dogs. The trainer, a wonderful and dedicated woman named Allison, said, "Quiet." Nineteen became silent--all but Reynolds. As we walked closer to see the dog, he jumped up on the gate and scared Sonny half to death. Sonny bolted and would not return until the next day.

Due to our son's particular hearing impairment, loud sounds hurt. On the second day, Reynolds Dog, as Sonny now calls him, did not understand and scared him away again. However, after waiting almost four years, I was not about to go home without a friend for my child.

The next day we tried a younger and smaller setter. She had a high-pitched voice that always made Sonny cry. I went back to Reynolds, apologized for deserting him, and asked him to give me a break until Dad and Sonny could be convinced. He did. We left with an additional 100 pounds in our van and drove home.

Reynolds was a social replacement, so he didn't have to be perfect in my eyes. It takes patience to allow the dog to get used to the "owner" and vice versa. The adjustment period for Sonny, who is largely nonverbal, was about 18 months.

One of the more difficult hurdles was the confusion caused by sharing a common language. I would tell Sonny to "come here," and Reynolds would come. Then there were environmental adjustments, like escalators. There are few where we live, so when we went to the airport, both dog and boy had major fears to confront. By now, however, we've learned how to practice our skills with the dog; and now, four years later, Reynolds and Sonny fit together like needle and thread.

Reynolds loves to play ball
with Sonny.

All of us have had many adventures with Reynolds Dog. Once we took Reynolds to the birdhouse at the zoo. As a pheasant landed at his feet, his eyes asked me, Am I working? I answered, "You'll have to leave the bird," and he walked on. Later, I was pushing Sonny through some sand, and the wheelchair got very stuck. "Pull!" I commanded. Reynolds quickly used his 105-pound frame to help me out. I was grateful, and Sonny had a new hero.

This four-legged friend has definitely had a positive impact on our son's quality of life. Commanding a dog takes patience, skill, and love, and Sonny has managed to learn all three. In return, Reynolds never tires of playing ball—a joy for me to behold. In 18 years, no one has ever dropped by the house to see if Sonny wanted to play ball.

Reynolds' most amazing feat is the positive attention he attracts to Sonny. So many people ask Reynolds's name and age that Sonny has developed a whole new vocabulary around his dog. When we go to the hospital (every nurse knows us by now), Reynolds makes everyone smile. We do, however, have to educate the public about service dogs. Even though all service dogs are granted full public access, we have been denied services, seated in storage rooms at restaurants, been made to wait while others were seated, or flatly been refused admittance to events. Nevertheless, every one of these unpleasant memories is counterbalanced by the doors Reynolds opens, the friends he makes, and his outstanding ambassadorship, both for the differently-abled and for CCI.

To this day, Reynolds continues to be Sonny's only full-time friend. But now we believe that it is enough. Is it enough for Reynolds? I believe he got everything he asked for—except for a cat of his very own.


Canine Companions (New Mexico), 505-983-3650,

Canine Companions for Independence National Headquarters, P.O. Box 446, Santa Rosa, CA 95402-0446. 800-572-2275 (Voice/TDD),

Assistance Dogs International, Inc., c/o Freedom Service Dogs, Inc., P.O. Box 150217, Lakewood, CO 80515-0217. 303-234-9512,

Delta Society National Service Dog Center, 289 Perimeter Road East, Renton, WA 98055-1329. Voice: 800-869-6898. TDD: 800-809-2714,,

Assistance Dog Institute, P.O. Box 2334, Rohnert Park, CA 94927. 707-585-0300,,

Guide Dogs of the Desert, P.O. Box 1692, Palm Springs, CA 92263. 760-329-6257,,

Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind, 371 East Jericho Turnpike, Smithtown, NY 11787-2976. 516-265-2121 or 800-548-4337,,

Paws with a Cause National Headquarters, 4646 South Division, Wayland, MI 49348. 800-253-PAWS (Voice/TDD).

Alexandra Kolkmeyer lives with DJ Dr. Feelgood in Santa Fe and is the author of "The Clear Red Stone" and "The Bar Mitzvah Boys". Used with permission of Mothering Magazine, Sept/Oct 2000.

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