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Kisses from Zippy: A dog's love changes boy's life

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Joshua Pence lies by his service dog, a golden retriever named Zippy, at his home in Merrifield, Minn. Kelly Humphrey / Forum News Service2 / 3
Joshua Pence gets doggy kisses from his service dog Zippy at his home in Merrifield, Minn., near his mother Megan Pence. Kisses are one of Zippy's jobs to help Joshua when he's stressed or overwhelmed. Kelly Humphrey / Forum News Service3 / 3

MERRIFIELD, Minn. — Seven-year-old Joshua Pence doesn't speak much, but the look of contentment on his face when snuggling with Zippy the golden retriever says more than words could.

Zippy's not your average family dog, however. A pup who loves to give kisses and is full of laugh-inducing energy, 16-month-old Zippy joined the Pence family this summer to serve as Joshua's service dog. Her penchant for affection is a trait making Zippy an excellent candidate for Joshua, whose tendency toward frustrated outbursts are diffused by a few licks of the dog's tongue.

"If he's having a bad moment, where things are going rough, we tend to get him into an area where he's not around everybody else and she just knows at that point," said Chris Pence, Joshua's father. "What might have taken up to an hour or longer to get over one of his fits, it takes minutes now. He just forgets what the issue was. And so he forgets what was upsetting him or bothering him and he snaps out of it."

When the Pence family adopted Joshua as an infant, they learned he suffered from fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, or FASD, a condition caused by one's mother consuming alcohol during pregnancy. With the disorder comes a host of difficulties for the boy: sensory processing issues, a behavioral disorder and childhood apraxia of speech, which is a disorder making it difficult for Joshua's brain to translate his thoughts into spoken words.

For the first-grader, these afflictions affect him most in times of transition: leaving home for church, waking up in the morning and any out-of-the-ordinary occasions. These moments are difficult for Joshua's brain to process, often serving as a tipping point to a behavioral meltdown.

A doggy intervention

In 2015, the family learned of 4 Paws for Ability, an Ohio-based organization specializing in providing service dogs for children. On its website, 4 Paws for Ability notes it was the first and perhaps only organization training dogs for children with FASD. Chris and wife Megan Pence saw the potential benefits a service dog could bring for Joshua and set a fundraising goal of $15,000 to support the cost of the animal.

In just two months, a variety of fundraising efforts combined to help the Pences achieve their goal, along with additional funds supporting the family's eventual trip to Ohio this summer to train with and take home the dog Joshua named Zippy. The Pences were required to wait nearly two years to acquire Zippy due to the enormous need 4 Paws for Ability attempts to fulfill. Although graduating 12-15 service dogs six times a year, families requesting service dogs now should expect to wait as long as three years, Chris said.

When the Pences arrived in Ohio, Zippy already had a full year of training behind her. She spent the first three months of her life in the "puppy house," where volunteers came regularly to play with and socialize the pooches. The puppies wear their service dog vests from the beginning of their lives so they're used to the feeling, Megan said.

After 12 weeks, the puppies go to a nearby prison, where prisoners recognized for good behavior go through some of the training basics, such as potty training. Soon after, the dogs are placed in homes for continued training. After six months, the organization brings the dogs in and evaluates whether each pup has what it takes to be a service dog. Those that don't are known as "Fabulous Flunkies," Chris said, and are adopted out as family pets.

After several more months of training with college students, the dogs are evaluated again for specialized service dog traits — those particularly skilled in alerting to seizures, or suited for those with mobility issues, or that love to give kisses and are excitable, are assigned to children based on their disabilities.

That's when the Pences and families like them come in. Two times a day for a few hours at a time over the course of two weeks, the organization's trainers begin training the humans, too.

"We basically had to go to training ourselves for two weeks, so they could take all the training they'd done for a year, and they had to then transition in all the training she had over to us," Chris said.

Training culminated in an obstacle course through a mall, during which Zippy was tempted with food on the floor, distracted by name calling and threatened by loud, scary carts. The dog, handler and child must all make it through this realistic scenario to ensure the training is effective when it counts.

Zippy passed, of course, and headed north for her new home.

Zippy's home ... now what?

The Pences said they weren't sure what to expect with Zippy's arrival. After two years of waiting for the dog, what might unfold was unclear.

The first thing the Pences noticed was the sheer amount of work required with Zippy — to maintain her training, to develop her relationship with Joshua so the two kept a special bond and to navigate the new world of handling a dog regularly in public. Only Joshua is allowed to feed the dog, and the other children — who are homeschooled while Joshua attends school — cannot play with Zippy in the yard. Chris said they don't ignore her and can pet her, of course. But keeping Joshua in the forefront of Zippy's mind, as her boy, is important.

It wasn't long before Zippy demonstrated her skills. With the gentle (and sometimes overly enthusiastic) nuzzle of Zippy's snout, Joshua's focus was redirected to his ever-patient best friend, rather than whatever caused his fit.

Previously long, stressful moments for the Pences and their four other children were reduced to mere minutes. These benefits began to show themselves in all aspects of Joshua's life — not just those at home. His school days became smoother, and tantrums preceded public outings far less often.

"It means he can go to school and we don't get a phone call," Chris said. "It means he can go to Sunday school and hang out with his friends, and his teacher will say, 'He had a great day.'

Those are things that, if you would have told us that two years ago, that he would have gone to school and had a great day, I would say, 'You aren't talking about my son.'"

Chris and Megan said without any previous knowledge of service dogs, they expected Zippy's impacts more in public than at home. Although the pooch does play a role in keeping Joshua from running away in busy public places — such as the county fair or the Mall of America — her presence alone seems to have the greatest effect on Joshua.

"When he's home, he's getting that good quality down time. It's really helping him when he does go out in public," Megan said. "It also helps him have the constant assurance wherever he goes to keep him grounded. Really right away, just to have somebody with him was a huge deal. If he goes somewhere too loud, too bright, too crazy, he has that anchor that keeps him grounded."

Joshua's behavioral issues have not vanished and might never, although they will likely change how they manifest with age, Chris said. Even so, Zippy offers something no human, no matter how patient, can provide.

"He's not alone in the behaviors. He has a companion in those behaviors," Megan said. "Where sometimes Mom and Dad are a little frustrated at the same time, he's got somebody who doesn't get frustrated with him. So when he's screaming, and throwing things at us ... she knows. If he started screaming right now, she would run right to him and love him. That's her call, to love."

The introduction of Zippy to the Pences' lives means for the first time, Joshua can visit Florida with the rest of the family this winter with greater assurance the experience won't overwhelm the boy. While Chris and Megan explained this in their living room, Joshua pointed to a photograph of his 10-year-old brother Caleb swimming with dolphins.

"I didn't go," Joshua said.

"Having her means that when we go to Florida, he doesn't have to stay home," Megan said.

Thankful for the gift of Zippy

For all the work and learning curves and new situations Zippy's brought with her, the joy she's brought to Joshua tops the list for the Pences.

"He has a best friend at home waiting for him," Chris said. "I think that's really helped him emotionally — his self esteem, feeling good about himself. ... She's super sweet and she's a really, really good dog."

On this Thanksgiving, and every day, the Pences are thankful to the people, businesses and organizations that helped make Zippy become a reality.

"We are, of course, insanely grateful to everyone," Megan said.

Chelsey Perkins

Chelsey Perkins grew up in Crosslake and is a graduate of Pequot Lakes High School. She earned her bachelor's degree in professional journalism at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. Perkins interned at the Lake Country Echo and the Rochester and Austin Post-Bulletins, and also worked for the student-run Minnesota Daily newspaper as a copy editor and columnist during college. She went on to intern at Utne Reader magazine, where she was later hired as the research editor. Before becoming the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch, Perkins worked as the county government beat reporter at the Dispatch and a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal.

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