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Sean & Sophia—A Boy And His Service Dog Go To School

This story has a fairytale ending for Sean as he takes his beloved Sophia with him to school.

Once upon a time, there was a little boy named Sean, who had problems with life because he has Asperger’s Syndrome. Then he found a loving service dog named Sophia, who changed his life.

Now Sean and Sophia, who are inseparable, are going to go to school together every day.

It sounds like something out of a children’s book, but the story is real.

Sean and Sophia will board a special school bus Tuesday morning and head to for the first day of school.

It’s a day for which Sean and Sophia have practiced, making trial runs through the school to ensure a smooth transition.

Sean’s mother, Jen Forsyth, said her son and his service dog have done “fantastic.”

Asperger's Syndrome is a type of autism in which children often have trouble with social situations and experience sensory issues.

The dog’s trainer, Jim Wagner of Perfect Fit Canines, was on hand Monday morning to “proof” the dog. That means he walked the dog through all the areas in which Sean might travel—classrooms, the gymnasium, cafeteria and music room.

Wagner and his wife Susan created Perfect Fit Canines to work with service dogs and children and young adults with autism.

Sophia has been trained to “dig in” and stop Sean from going somewhere he is not allowed to go.

“She is trained to keep him from bolting,” Wagner said. “Sean is a bolter.”

Jen Forsyth explained that Sean knows rules like not crossing a road until you look both ways.

“He can verbally tell you,” she said. “But when it comes time to put it in action, it doesn’t happen.”

Sean also has had problems in the past with meltdowns that can last hours. Since Sophia joined the family, the meltdowns are over in minutes, she said.

Sean and Sophia began training together in early 2011 and Sophia came home with the family that September.

“Since that time we haven’t had a single two-hour meltdown, Sophia runs over and kisses Sean’s hands or face, and his agitation eases almost immediately,” Jen wrote in her blog.

“Sean instinctively hugs Sophia when he’s nervous or buries his face in her back when sensory issues bother him. His social skills are beginning to improve because kids come up to him now to ask about the dog.”

Jen realizes there will be plenty of questions and concerns about having a dog at school.

Wagner and trainer Jeff Woods, president of Misty Pines Dog Park in Franklin Park Borough, have offered to come to the school for the first few days to ensure a smooth transition and answer questions.

“Our people have gone out of their way, and they want all sides to be comfortable,” Jen said.

Wagner said Sophia has done “excellently”.

“There have been absolutely no problems whatsoever,” Wagner said. “Sophia is ready to meet any obstacle."

The dog will be tethered to Sean throughout the day and he is responsible for taking Sophia outside to a grassy area near the dumpsters for bathroom breaks.

Cleaning up after the dog is his responsibility also.

“Sean has done extremely well,” Wagner continued. “He could be a trainer . . . He knows all the commands.”

“The only thing we haven’t proofed for is the 412 students who will be here tomorrow,” Wagner said on Monday.

Although other children might want to play with and pet Sophia, she will be wearing “Do Not Pet” patches on her service vest.

Sean attended a robotics camp this summer at the Sarah Heinz House and a hundred kids there wanted to pet Sophia.

“That’s when the patches went on,” Jen said.

The Forsyths have advocated for Sean to be able to bring the dog to school since last year. They found out on June 11 that Sophia’s presence at school was approved.

Jennifer C. Jaff, an attorney and founder of Advocacy for Patients With Chronic Illnesses advocated for them, Jen said.

Asked if she considers allowing a service dog into the school to be a ground-breaking change, Jen said no.

“I see it as doing whatever is needed to help my son.”

The Forsyth family founded the Sean & Sophia Foundation that initially focused on fundraising to help with the high cost of purchasing a trained service dog.

The foundation’s emphasis is moving toward advocacy now.

“It’s become a lot of advocacy and we’re here to help anyone,” she said.

Jen is working on a second master’s degree—this one will be in autism spectrum disorders. She received her bachelor’s degree from California University in English and journalism in 1999 and an MBA from the University of Phoenix in 2009.

“If I don’t use everything I have learned to help others,” Jen said, “then I’m not doing my job.

 

Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to Sophia as a therapy dog—she is a service dog. 

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Tripitapodria August 28, 2012 at 07:33 PM
LOVE to read happy stories!!!
Concerned Citizen August 28, 2012 at 08:46 PM
i'd be curious what would happen if another child in his class is allergic to dogs? or even just another child/teacher in the school is highly allergic to dogs and any contact whatsoever can have serious health consequences? don't get me wrong... i feel for this child and the family, but i wonder whose needs the school district would accommodate in either of those scenarios? and what type of lawsuit they would open themselves to by choosing one or the other?
Cindy Cusic Micco August 28, 2012 at 10:57 PM
We can always wonder "what if." I'm sure it is like anything else—you deal with it as it comes along. Here is what the ADA 2010 revised requirements from the U.S. Justice Department say: http://www.ada.gov/service_animals_2010.htm Allergies and fear of dogs are not valid reasons for denying access or refusing service to people using service animals. When a person who is allergic to dog dander and a person who uses a service animal must spend time in the same room or facility, for example, in a school classroom or at a homeless shelter, they both should be accommodated by assigning them, if possible, to different locations within the room or different rooms in the facility.
PR Tax Payer August 29, 2012 at 01:18 AM
I can assure you that putting a dog and a child on opposite sides of a room will provide absolutely no barrier or protection to an asthmatic/allergic child. When a child has asthma and their respiratory system gets irritated from an allergen, an asthma attack can be fatal. How will the school protect the children who have allergens and asthma? If you have ever seen a child not be able to breath due to an asthma attack, you would understand why some parents may not agree with the schools decision to allow a dog in the school. Just as this family feels strongly that their child should be able to feel safe while at school, thus providing him with a dog.... I feel that every child who has asthma or an allergen to dogs/dander and other environmental allergens that dogs carry, also should be able to feel safe while at school. Which would mean being in a learning environment without being exposed to asthma triggers, such as dog/dog dander. We are not allowed to send our children to school with peanuts because of peanut allergies. Because peanut allergens can be fatal. Unfortunately, what may be helpful to 1 child, may be fatally harmful to others. I would hope that everybody can keep an open mind and try to see this situation through someone else's perspective. We all want what is best for our children.
Cindy Cusic Micco August 29, 2012 at 04:28 AM
FYI: The school did not decide to allow the dog. Federal law mandates it.
another PR mom August 29, 2012 at 01:36 PM
HEre is my problem with it:So much concern is given to children with peanut allergies-enough to completely change how the elementary buildings are run (no food whatsoever from home-so no food at parties, no food for rewards AT ALL, etc.) you wonder why THIS particular allergy is so important when others which are JUST as bad are not worried about at all. My daughter is extremely allergic to ragweed yet Eden Hall leaves a ton of it out every year thus making life miserable for her. Just like the kids who are allergic to dogs are going to have to deal with it too. So I guess what I am trying to say is its not really about the dog-thats find if it is what this child needs. It is the double standards that abound at PR that really frustrate me. Just one more thing-I sincerely hope that there will be no punishment for children who touch this dog. Children love dogs and this will be a natural magnet for them regardless of the 'rules'.
Concerned Citizen August 29, 2012 at 05:24 PM
A "fairy tale ending for sean and his beloved sophia"? give me a break. it may be a fairy tale for them, but it will be a headache for everyone of the parents of kids who are in that class. i know first handfrom having a child in a classroom with a service dog (another district in area), that dog will be a constant distraction with a classroom full of kids who are already easily distracted and then it's those kids who get in trouble for acting like kids around a dog. patches that say don't pet me? is that a joke, they're kids.... and PR Mom, i agree with you but i don't see it as a double standard but more of policitally correctness run amuck. this woman brought her story to the news stations a few months ago to publicly shame the administrators into doing what she wanted, and she got it. the politically correct machine continues to throw common sense out the window every chance it gets and continues to put the needs of a few above those of the masses.
Jen Forsyth August 29, 2012 at 11:27 PM
As Sean's Mom, I can tell you we truly did look at the issue from all sides. I realize I can't change any of your minds, and you are entitled to your opinions. The school took extra care in putting Sean in a classroom that was the furthest away from the main section. And those children who had dog allergies or who expressed concerns were not put into Sean's class. And in our experience, children do acknowledge and obey the DO NOT PET patches. Nine times out of ten it's adults who come up and pet or touch her without permission. I am also happy to report that two days into the school year, the kids are not all over Sophia, and she has not been a distraction. Give children credit, Concerned Citizen, they are able to follow rules pretty well. Those who object or have concerns to what we did have just as many rights as we do. There is no double standard. The problem is, many parents don't realize they can advocate for their children just as we advocated for ours, and if two disabilities (or an allergy) are involved, the school must accomodate both parties equally. So if there is a concern, I encourage those parents to speak up. This issue is not PC run amok. This is an issue that is protected by Federal Law. Sophia meets and exceeds all of the requirements needed to be considered a Certified Autism Service Dog, and Sean has a right to have her with him in school.
Doug Ellisen August 30, 2012 at 12:40 AM
Jen - don't worry about the negative comments here. The Pine-Richland Patch is, in my opinion, is full of substandard reporting and littered with people who are so unhappy they will complain about anything. I highly suspect that few - or none of them ever actually do anything positive to help. I actually feel sad for most of those that post here - they must live such unhappy lives and this is the best they can do - to attack whomever or whatever they can on this third-rate, sad little corner of the internet.
Susan M. August 30, 2012 at 06:21 PM
PR Watcher, If you had used your real name, I would have more respect for you, especially after you wrote the comment ""to attack whomever or whatever they can on this third-rate, sad little corner of the internet". You put yourself into that same group. With that being said, I can understand some of the fears and concerns that parents may have regarding the dog in the classroom, along with a number of other issues. We all know that Pine-Richland is the special needs school district of the year. We either accept it, or move. My concern is for my daughter who is easily distracted and has some major distractions in one of her classrooms already. I will be an advocate for my child so that she can receive a quality education just like every other child should. Jen Forsyth is correct---we need to fight for our children. We can't just sit around and make comments on an internet site and hope that something changes. I am very involved in the school but unfortunately, the MAJORITY of parents are not, and never have been. It seems like the one's that don't lift a finger to help, or try to make changes in a postive way, are the one's that complain the most.
Doug Ellisen August 30, 2012 at 06:58 PM
Fair enough, problem corrected. My comments still stand. I do not challenge those that are fighting for their children.
Susan M. August 30, 2012 at 09:20 PM
OK, now use your REAL name.
a mom August 30, 2012 at 10:37 PM
Mr Ellisen, If The Patch is sub-standard reporting then quit reading it and quit commenting. The Patch has reported on news that we as citizens of Pine-Richland would never know since we live in Disneyland. Nothing bad ever happens here and maybe you are one that pulls the wool over your eyes. Thank you Cindy for your constant and fair reporting. The editor of the patch attends almost every school board meeting, community event, and any other news worthy item in our area. If it were not for the Patch we would not know what our nefarious school board is up to, or our neighbors that are dealing drugs, and God forbid, shootings in our neighborhoods. I for one was robbed in the middle of the night while we were sleeping, but due to the code of silence in our area none of my neighbors were privvy to this unless I told them. Mr Ellisen, I am sure you are more educated then all of us and your writing would be more elequont. Why don't you write your own blog or start your own newsletter so that those of us who read the Wall Street Journal may follow your blog? And Mr. Ellison if my English is not proper it is only due to a typo.
Cindy Cusic Micco August 31, 2012 at 04:38 AM
Thank you, a mom. You made my day :-)
crosbycat August 31, 2012 at 03:50 PM
I also love the Patch! It provides a great place for local stories that are no longer covered by he physical newspapers and their websites. It allows local people to have their voices heard by blogging or writing to the editor and actually being published. Most importantly, the Patch alerts us all to issues that are important to us but would be difficult or impossible to discover on our own (e.g. school tax increases and soccer coach problems).
Cindy Cusic Micco August 31, 2012 at 07:51 PM
Thanks! Love to hear that you love the Patch!
Kim January 07, 2013 at 04:49 PM
Jen, First of all, congratulations to you for getting the dog for your son. My son has a dual diagnosis- Down syndrome as well as Autism, and his service dog arrives in April! Of course, the school is asking the same questions, allergies, petting, etc. I too, have also gone back to school for my Masters Degree in early childhood special education, and just published my first book- My point is, unless someone has a child with a disability- I pray they do their homework before casting negative opinions or judgement. At the end of the day, we are all in this world together and I hope everyone can put themselves - in thought- in a parents shoes with a child with a disability for just one day. It's a beautiful- exhausting-challenging-expensive- and rewarding world once people get to know it. We need help- compassion and understanding- because it is the right thing to do for one another. I love your story, and would be happy to send you a copy of my book. Kim@FightingforTaylor.com. It is all about the Inclusion of children- All Children regardless of their abilities or inabilities. Keep up the great job you are doing as a parent and advocate!

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