Jim Wagner sits at a local Starbucks waiting for a visitor. He's easily spotted because with him is Sebastian, a yellow lab.
Sebastian is one of seven service dogs in training, part of Wagner's new nonprofit organization, Perfect Fit Canines.
Wagner and his wife, Susan, started the organization last October. Perfect Fit Canines provides service dogs specially trained to fit an individual's needs.
Wagner has worked with children who have autism for more than 15 years. He said he always had kicked around the idea of starting an organization.
He got the idea after seeing a fundraiser at Misty Pines Dog Park Co. in Wexford for a little girl who needed a service dog for a seizure disorder. Wagner then approached his wife about starting a nonprofit directly related to his field of expertise, and the rest is history, he said.
The organization consults with Jeff Woods, a certified professional dog trainer at Misty Pines Dog Park, and his staff to select, breed and train English Labradors to meet the need for high-quality trained service dogs to assist those with autism and their families.
People who volunteer as puppy raisers take a dog from the age of eight weeks to 14 months. They attend bimonthly trainings with the puppies and help socialize them by taking them to public settings.
Then, the puppies work with the organization's autism specialist and animal behaviorist to initiate an animal-client interaction. They then enroll at boot camp at Misty Pines to undergo training.
Before a puppy is placed with a client, the pair must pass a competency test.
Clients are responsible for paying for their dog companions. Anyone in need of a service dog can apply to the organization.
Wagner said the process is taken very seriously.
"We look for key things that the dog will need to be trained in—booting, keeping children safe at night, sensing if medication levels are low," he said. "We fit each dog for the needs of the child. Training can be up to a year depending on what kind of training is needed."
People who are eligible for a service dog can hold fundraisers or create a foundation to raise money to pay for the dog, Wagner said.
The Forsyth family of Wexford has created the Sean & Sophia Foundation for 7-year-old Sean, who has Asperger's Syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism. Sean and his family are in the process of paying for training expenses for Sophia—a yellow lab who is Sebastian's sister.
Jennifer Forsyth, Sean's mother, said she had met Wagner when they both taught at the Kaplan Career Institute. She said she immediately contacted him about a service dog for Sean when she heard about the organization.
"The reason our family went with Perfect Fit Canines to get our service dog, Sophia, was because we knew Jim and Susan were going to do this the right way," Forsyth said. "The Wagners truly want to make sure both child and dog are happy, and we knew they were not going to let us take home the wrong dog for our son.
"They took their time in the evaluation process, and now they are (doing so) again in the training process, and flat-out said if they didn't feel like this was going to work, they would tell us. I truly believe that they would do just that."
There currently are seven dogs enrolled in the organization's program—Sebastian, Sophia, Nugget, Blue, Oscar, Lexie and Abby. Wagner said the organization also is working to train French poodles for children who have allergies.
"It's not impossible to get a dog," Wagner said. "I'm proud of what we've been able to accomplish for people. I never dreamed we'd get off the ground the way we did."
In the future, Wagner said he hopes the organization grows big enough where it can provide dogs to everyone who needs them.
"Our ultimate dream is to have a location of our own where we can raise and train our own dogs," he said. "I want to be large enough that we can service anyone and everyone who needs us. We're going to continue to be here for the autism community."
The organization needs volunteers. Duties of volunteers include raising puppies, giving puppy raisers a break, fundraising, typing or making phone calls. Anyone interested can contact Perfect Fit Canines at 412-359-9789 or at firstname.lastname@example.org to offer help, request an application or learn more about the program.
Perfect Fit Canines held a birthday party Saturday for Sebastian and Sophia, who turned 1, at Misty Pines Dog Park, 2523 Wexford Bayne Road in Wexford.
The organization also will hold a Pool Tournament on Nov. 11 at Dave and Busters at the Waterfront. Raffle tickets are being sold for $25 for a chance to win a 2011 Harley-Davidson Super Glide. The winning number will be based on the daily lottery number that night. Tickets currently are on sale by contacting 412-359-9789 or at email@example.com.
The Sean & Sophia Foundation
The Forsyth family of Wexford developed the foundation to assist in fundraising and paying for expenses necessary to train Sophia for 7-year old Sean, who has Asperger's Syndrome. While the fundraising for Sean and Sophia remains the group's top priority, the foundation also plans to expand its efforts to help other families of children with special needs in obtaining equipment and therapies that might otherwise be financially out of reach.