A dog is often labeled as man’s best friend, which stems from a transparent portrayal of love, dedication and loyalty.
Within the walls of O’Loughlin Elementary School in Hays, the growing relationship between a second-grader and his new best friend goes beyond that.
After working for Developmental Services of Northwest Kansas for 15 years, Roberta Molstad suspected a disability while observing her son’s unique behavioral patterns.
“He was pretty delayed, and I just knew there was something that wasn’t quite right,” she said.
Her suspicions were confirmed after visiting a specialist, and at 3 years old, Andrew, now 7, was diagnosed with autism.
Time moved forward, and encouraging Andrew to socialize and interact with other children while helping him function without feeling overwhelmed became a daunting feat.
Then, approximately two years ago, Andrew’s doctor recommended a service dog to help socialize Andrew and reduce the amount of medication he needed.
“A lot of it was about making him feel more confident and secure,” Roberta said. “We started looking, and I found one.”
Roberta began making payments on a 6-week-old puppy, finishing payments for him in July.
The family traveled to Tucson, Ariz., for a week of training through Service Dogs for Independence and returned to Hays on Sept. 13.
“Last week was Andrew’s first week in school with the dog, and it was also his first week he ever stayed in class all week long,” Roberta said. “It was so exciting.”
Shannon Demel, O’Loughlin Elementary School principal, said if the resource can help Andrew, her school will continue to support it.
“This is what schools are designed to do,” Demel said. “It’s our job to provide the best situation we can for our students.”
During the last week, dramatic strides have been made. According to his teacher, Andrew interacts with other students more than he ever has before. He also accomplishes more work throughout the day with Pickles, his comforting companion, by his side.
“He is much calmer and more verbal,” said Amy Wasinger, Andrew’s second-grade teacher. “He’s more able to get through things that are difficult for him without a meltdown; he just says he’s upset and moves past it.”
Even at home, the presence of Pickles has altered his behavior. If he has an anxiety attack, Pickles is trained to apply pressure to his legs or shoulders, providing extra sensory input to help calm him.
“Andrew does still have meltdowns, but what used to take an hour now takes about five minutes,” his mother said. “I just can’t believe the difference.”
Pickles also provides comfort while sleeping next to Andrew at night.
“He used to have trouble sleeping, but with Pickles there, he now sleeps through the whole night,” Roberta said. “He’s been a wonderful addition to our family, but especially to Andrew.”
The cooperation and support received through O’Loughlin means the world to Roberta, who said former principal Nancy Harman originally started the process and now Demel has taken over and does whatever it takes to benefit Andrew in his educational environment.
“From the bottom of my inner core, I’m just thrilled he’s able to be in his classroom with his friends,” Roberta said. “Kids are now talking to him that never talked to him before.
“He’s doing so well, feeling so good inside and is so confident. I can’t even express in words how wonderful it is.”