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 overenthusiastic) 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.
Public challenges and fake service dogs
Of all the new experiences for the Pence family, bringing Zippy into public has been the most challenging - not because of the pooch, but because of the people.
Megan said she was astonished by how few adults seemed to understand the concept of a service dog, not only petting Zippy while she worked but also barking or meowing at her and even placing their children on Zippy's back. Others express concern for Zippy, worried she doesn't live a full life because she "always has to work," Megan said.
"They see her and she's very disciplined in public," Megan said. "They feel sorry for her that she always has to work. Once we get home, she's all puppy. She literally chases her tail in circles. She only works when we're out in public."
Others respond in fear to the harness Zippy wears on her face, called a gentle leader. The device is used to prevent dogs from pulling on a leash and teaches them to heel to their handlers, a skill particularly important for Zippy as she is sometimes attached to Joshua at his waist. It does not hurt a dog or clamp their mouths shut, Megan said, likening it to a horse halter.
"This is not a muzzle," Megan said. "We have people telling their children she is a mean dog so we muzzle her. ... They work amazing, because she's not going to pull, you lead her."
To head off some of the questions and concerns, the Pences created business cards offering information on Zippy.
"I am working hard to keep my boy safe," a paragraph next to a photo of Zippy begins. "Service dogs have a big job to do, so you should not pet them while they are working."
What troubles the Pences the most, however, is a certain kind of inquiry they've received.
"We get questions all the time like, 'Where can we buy a vest like that so we can take our dog in public?'" Megan said. "First of all, get a disability."
"It's one of those things where she's a great dog, but if I could have my way, I wouldn't have her," Chris added. "And my kids wouldn't have any issues. It's like, don't ask for a dog."
With the availability of service dog vests for purchase online, the Pences said they believe people passing their pets off as service dogs create difficulties for those who benefit from or need their dogs to prevent serious injury or death.
"It just gives service dogs a bad name," Megan said. "We have a friend who works at an ER (emergency room). They're chewing on the equipment, licking the medical supplies, biting people, and legally there's nothing he can do about that."
Megan said because of this seemingly increasing problem, people react with trepidation or annoyance when the Pences bring Zippy into businesses or other public places. Service dogs are protected by federal law, but Chris noted the generic language in the law means there's no standard of certification. If a person says it's a service dog and the dog's wearing a vest, no one can question the veracity of the claim.
Beyond putting people in danger, untrained dogs in public also endanger Zippy's career as a service dog. The pup cannot become aggressive with or fearful of other dogs. If she developed either of these behaviors, she could no longer serve as Joshua's helper.
"If I were to say what could people do to help, one is to smile from afar, and ask if it's OK to pet because sometimes there's situations where it would work," Chris said. "And the other is, watch your dogs."
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.