'Team Lucy' aims to fetch enough funds for autism service dog for West Fargo girl

WEST FARGO - When it comes to fundraising, Michael and Ruth Wirtz and their friends aren't dogging it. The group, which calls itself "Team Lucy," is nearing the end of a fundraising blitz to raise $25,000 to buy a service dog for the West Fargo c...
Lucy Wirtz smiles while getting pushed in her toy vehicle by her mother Ruth Wirtz as they play outside Wednesday, April 20, 2016, at their home in West Fargo. A rummage sale is being planned for Saturday at Grace Lutheran School in Fargo to raise $25,000 to buy a therapy dog for the three and a half-year-old girl with autism. Dave Wallis / The Forum

WEST FARGO – When it comes to fundraising, Michael and Ruth Wirtz and their friends aren't dogging it.

The group, which calls itself "Team Lucy," is nearing the end of a fundraising blitz to raise $25,000 to buy a service dog for the West Fargo couple's 3½ -year-old daughter Lucy, who has autism.

The Wirtzes hope a rummage sale, silent auction and prize drawing that make up the "Raising Money for Some Paws" fundraiser from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, April 23, at Grace Lutheran School in Fargo will fetch enough money to put the effort over the top.

Their three-stall garage is packed with donated items, stacked in some spots to near the rafters, and neighbors and friends were still dropping off donations Wednesday evening, April 20.

Bell State Bank has donated $16,200 through its Pay It Forward program. Another $2,500 came from the Toppers Car Club. Altogether, more than $21,000 has been collected toward purchasing a service dog from Madison, Va.-based Service Dogs by Warren Retrievers, the Wirtzes said.

The family now has two dogs, a 13-year-old Cocker spaniel named Toby and an 8-year-old cockapoo named Tanner.

The Wirtzes learned that behaviors tied to Lucy's autism are calmed when she's with dogs. She did well with a labrador retriever, but that dog has since died, Michael Wirtz said. Now Toby helps her, particularly when it's time to go to bed. But age rules out both Toby and Tanner for service training, the couple said.

Ruth Wirtz, who is an administrator for North Dakota State University's Department of Military Science/Army ROTC, said another tail-wagging companion could be wonderful for her daughter.

"I think it's going to give her that constant that's always going to be there," she said.

A service dog could redirect Lucy from emotional meltdowns - which occur after short periods in social situations, such as attending church or going shopping. It may also help her get to sleep "and make the world around her a little more manageable," she said.

Michael Wirtz said a trip to Target can quickly overcome his daughter.

"You know Black Friday? How stressful it is? That's her times 10. And that's just a regular shopping trip," he said.

The family has two other daughters: 9-year-old Lillian and 2-year-old Eliza.

Eliza and Lucy both have Fragile X syndrome, as well. For Eliza, that has meant delays in speaking and walking, Ruth Wirtz said. It's less clear what problems Fragile X will cause for Lucy.

Michael Wirtz said Service Dogs will select a dog with behavioral characteristics they think will help Lucy, then do six to seven months of training before the Wirtzes see their service dog.

Service Dogs trainers will spend a week with the family, showing them how to continue training for their service dog. After that, trainers from Service Dogs will visit every two to three months over the next two years to complete the dog's training, Michael Wirtz said.

"It's definitely a process," said Wirtz, a purchasing manager at UESCO Warehouse in Fargo.

Service Dogs by Warren Retrievers has received some complaints about the quality of the dogs and the training it provides, particularly for diabetic alert dogs, according to various media reports. The office of the Virginia attorney general lists 35 complaints against Service Dogs, with 34 pending. No details for those complaints were available online.

Michael Wirtz is aware some people have issues with SDWR. Still, he and Ruth decided to work with the group after she talked with a high school classmate. That woman has a son with autism who improved greatly after being matched with a service dog from SDWR, they said.

Complaints about SDWR probably have a lot to do with people being unprepared to help train their dog, Michael Wirtz said.

"We have a lot of training to do once we get the dog," he said. "That's a big part of it. I know there's complaints. I know there's lawsuits out there. It just doesn't concern me."