Sometimes a dog is a kid’s best friend.
That’s the unofficial premise behind a serious-minded Apex-based nonprofit, which trains dogs to serve as companions for children with autism, and others with neurologically-based disorders including PTSD.
Mark and Heather Mathis are founders of Ry-Con Service Dogs, and parents to Ryan, 12, and Connor, 10.
“Ryan was diagnosed with autism at 18 months, and we’ve lived in that world since,” said Mark. “As parents of a child with autism, you learn that they perceive the outside world differently. The service dog provides a redirection of that anxiety, comforting the child without requiring a social exchange.”
According to the Autism Society of North Carolina, Autism Spectrum Disorder impacts communication, social interaction and behavior. It is the second most common developmental disability, behind intellectual disability, and affects 60,000 North Carolinians.
To help his son, Mathis enlisted area experts in training a service dog for Ryan. This sensory-driven training is much different than that for mechanical service, such as a dog provides to the visually impaired.
When Ella was introduced to the household, “It was remarkable,” Mathis said. “We had a new child. Ryan joined us more often in the family room. He was able to be more patient at restaurants.
“For the child, the dog is a piece of their world coming with them, to help them feel at ease. Ryan knows Ella is there, and Ella recognizes Ryan as her child, and stays as close to him as physically possible.”
Today Mathis, a full-time biotech engineer, is state-certified as a service dog trainer with a specialty in autism service. He and Heather, who holds a master’s degree in social work, operate Ry-Con from their home, training up to 10 dogs a year for families nationwide.
Their sole choice of breed, chosen through careful research, is the Briard.
“A Briard is a specialty herding dog, intelligent, emotive and fiercely loyal,” Mathis said. “In training, we’re leveraging what the dog does naturally.”
Seventy percent of a dog’s training takes place in the field, Mathis says, such as the grocery store, shopping mall and airport. The dogs respond to eye contact and body language including subtle hand signals, and have a five-page command vocabulary.
The dogs, some imported from as far as the Czech Republic, where they’re used to assist police, are meticulously selected and trained for a specific child, based on needs and family preferences. Ry-Con provides support for the life of the dog.
Ryan Mathis plays with his service dog, Ella.
“The Briard’s temperament shows at about five and a half weeks, and we start matching the dog with a child and family,” Mathis said. “Families visit to interact with the dogs, and when the magic happens, you see it — the child focuses on the dog rather than the parent.”
That was the case for the Griffey family of Raleigh, who brought home Sasha last October. Sasha was trained specifically for their 5-year-old son Vincent II, nicknamed Deuce, who was diagnosed with autism at age 2.
“Deuce is non-verbal, but very aware of his environment,” said Teresa Dunlap-Griffey. “During Sasha’s training we got to visit her at the Mathises, and each time Deuce was more interested. They completely and totally clicked.”
Because a service dog is a large investment — Ry-Con’s baseline cost estimate is $10,000 — Mathis is very selective about the dog-family fit. He’s been known to refuse a client when that bonding didn’t take place.
Mathis also trains parents as they transition into the role of the dog’s leader, and is available for consult anytime, says Dunlap-Griffey.
She and her husband, Vincent Griffey, have witnessed progress in Deuce’s learning since Sasha’s integration. He also helps feed and groom the dog, which now sleeps with him.
“Children with autism often don’t pretend-play. But since Sasha arrived, we’re seeing more imaginative play, and we’re seeing Deuce interested in someone other than us, even at school,” Dunlap-Griffey said. “While he won’t share food or toys with us, he will share with Sasha. Deuce knows she is his dog.
“We’re also seeing emerging language. Deuce is incorporating ‘yes’ and ‘no’ into his vocabulary, and I’m certain that his first words and sentences will be about the dog.”
Mathis says society is more accepting of service animals than ever before, and Ella and Sasha are ambassadors in educating the public about working dogs.
“People recognize a trained dog; they see that controlled behavior and that snap reflex,” he said. “We encourage our parents to think of that as a bridge to social interaction for their child, an opportunity for peer-to-peer contact.”
“Autism can be very lonely, and we’d do anything to open up Deuce’s world,” Dunlap-Griffey said. “Sasha makes people want to interact with Deuce, and that pulls others into his world. Sasha’s part of our family now. This has been a transformational experience.”
Ry-Con Service Dogs, Apex
How to Help
- Donate dollars for kennel expansions.
- Donate food, treats and supplies; see website for specific brands.
- Foster a puppy in your home.
- Volunteer to help train, play with and nurture the dogs; must be 15 or older.
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