Woman trains service dog for her son with autism

Posted at 2:52 PM, Apr 04, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-04 14:52:47-04

What started as a search for a service dog to help her son led an Alaska woman to become a training director, helping others prepare K-9s to assist families in need.

Now she's hoping people will step up to foster these pups along their journey.

When Peg Walsh Bernert's autistic son Leo was three years old, he went missing.

"He'd leave the door open about this much, and that's how we knew. Even though he had plenty of adults always watching him, he could do it. Usually we would look and a neighbor would have him or we'd see him, but this time, nobody," Bernert said.

Just when they began to fear the worst, they finally found him hiding behind some dog kennels in the garage.

"And I just remember saying, 'a dog would have found him.' We were calling and looking in the kennels, but not behind them, and at that point he didn't answer to his name, so that night when I calmed down, I just went to my computer and Googled autism and service dog," Bernert said.

That's when she found 4 Paws for Ability, based out of Ohio. Bernert said she went to Ohio for a training class and came back with a golden retriever named Halo.

"I don't know how many times she saved him, but she found him every time indoors or outdoors," Bernert said.

Halo brought peace of mind to her family, and independence to Leo.

Bernert wanted to share that peace of mind with others in Alaska, so she became a training director for 4 Paws for Ability and started the local branch in her community.

So far, she's helped place about 30 dogs in Alaska. Now they're in need of weekend fosters for the dogs currently in training.

"They would take the dog with them places they go, like if they go shopping they would take the dog shopping, take the dog to the mall. Wherever they're going, they would take the dog for those socialization experiences, but the biggest thing is to kind of give them a feel for family life, because after all, when they're placed they're going to be part of a family," said Karen Shirk, founder of 4 Paws for Ability.

The dogs are training for many different abilities, like those who are deaf, need help with mobility, kids with diabetes, veterans with PTSD, and more. Each dog brings a bit of extra love, comfort, and independence to families that need it.

"The difference that a service dog makes in your life is phenomenal," Shirk said. "You go from people kind of staring at you because of your disability to not even seeing your disability and only seeing that you have this great dog with you, and then they get to learn about you, and meet you, and find out that people with disabilities are just like everybody else."

4 Paws for Ability is always looking for volunteers and they even cover the cost to participate in the program including the medical care and supplies to care for the service dog in training.