Photos by Cindy Koch
James McCrackyn entered Chautauqua Elementary School Monday morning much as he has for the past couple of years — except this time, he was tethered to a yellow Labrador named Comet.
As the slight 7-year-old strode into Geri Wilson’s multi-age classroom, the teacher broke into a huge smile.
“Hey, James, who did you bring to school today?,” she said, while the other children stared in wonder and delight.
James knelt next to his new companion. And for the first time since he met his service dog three weeks ago, he buried his head in Comet’s blond fur and hugged and kissed him.
“Comet,” he said. “Comet. Comet. Comet.”
His mother, Raven Pyle-McCrackyn, sat in the back of the classroom, holding back tears. “It’s amazing,” she said. “It’s just amazing.”
Comet — calm, handsome and highly trained — is already, it seems, changing James’ life.
Diagnosed with autism at age 2, James often grows overwhelmed in stimulating environments. He sometimes bolts. When in public, his mother, father or another adult has to hold his hand or wrist to keep him safe, something James doesn’t like. He squirms, pulls and resists.
Now, thanks to an Island-wide fundraising effort that garnered more than $13,500, the amount the family needed for the dog, James will go through much of his day — indeed, much of his life — tethered to Comet. And as a result, this lively boy with a swatch of blond hair will begin to experience, for the first time, a modicum of independence.
Consider the walk to the bus stop, a stroll of a couple hundred yards that most mornings takes Raven and James 20 minutes, an ordeal Raven has come to dread. On this particular morning — his first walk to the bus stop with Comet — James was tethered to the dog, walking a yard or two behind him, his hands free, his spirits high; his mother was at the dog’s side, holding Comet’s leash.
The peaceful trek took five minutes.
Raven shook her head in amazement. “It’s like I have a 7-year-old son.”
Comet came from Autism Service Dogs of America, an Oregon-based nonprofit founded seven years ago that carefully trains certain breeds of dogs — golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers and golden Lab mixes — and places them with children who have autism.
The training and support is extensive, part of the reason the costs for these dogs are high.
Comet was selected for the family after Raven and her husband Mark Frey-McCrackyn spent several days at the organization’s Lake Oswego center meeting the latest crop of dogs and working with them. The dog then came home with the couple Feb. 15.
Now, Kati Rule, the organization’s program training director, is with the family for six days, offering additional support and training — and taking the first trial runs with James tied to the animal.
Over the weekend, the family, Comet and Rule went to Thriftway, Books by the Way and Vashon Pharmacy. They’ve gone out to dinner twice. They’ve gone to Target in West Seattle. All the while, Rule has offered gentle reminders to Raven and Mark about just how to work with Comet; she’s also continued to train Comet, a dog just 17 months old.
“We had to learn that it’s not, ‘Sit! Sit, Comet! Sit,’” Raven said. “It’s just ‘sit.’”
The family talked about their experiences on Sat-urday at their small home down the road from Bethel Church, while Comet slept on the couch, his head in Rule’s lap. James, chatty and energetic, ran around the house, fetching a colorful array of tattered stuffed animals — all of them dogs and all of them named for animals he knows, including, now, two named Comet.
When the couple went to Oregon to begin the process of having a dog placed with them, Raven said she wasn’t terribly impressed by Comet.
“He seemed good, but not that good,” she said. “He seemed like a regular dog.”
Then Rule snapped his service pack into place, and Comet, Raven said, became a different dog.
He began to heel. They went to a park where a little kid grabbed at him. “He didn’t blink,” Raven said. They went to lunch, where Comet settled under the table and slept.
He passed countless other tests while he was in his work mode: Rule dropped a tray behind him; he wasn’t fazed. They dropped the leash on the ground; he stayed in place. An adult stranger touched him; he was calm. A plate of food was put on the floor, followed by the command, “Leave it”; he didn’t touch it.
The dog went to the hotel room where Mark and Raven were staying — and where they fell in love with the animal.
“He’s a great dog,” Mark said. “It’s not hard to love him.”
For the immediate future, James won’t walk down city streets or even school hallways alone with Comet; someone — his parent or a caregiver — will always hold the leash, walking on the other side of the dog.
But he will have a bit more autonomy, Raven said. When they go to the pharmacy, for instance, she expects she’ll be able to put James in the toy section, tell Comet to lie down and slip over to the prescription counter for a moment.
More important, the dog will begin to give James a sense of his boundaries, something he doesn’t fully grasp as a boy with autism, Rule said. He’ll rein him in, if necessary. He’ll offer constant companionship. With the nudge of his nose or even by lying on top of him, Comet will provide comfort.
And someday, the family hopes, James will go off on his own with his dog — an independence much greater than they thought possible only a year or so ago.
“Depending on how they develop as a team, I hope they’ll reach a point where James will say, ‘C’mon, Comet, let’s go,’” Rule said.
“Comet,” she added, “will go with James everywhere.”
In the classroom Monday morning, James and Comet already seemed like a team. After the dog’s introduction to the class, James sat at his desk, with Comet lying on the floor by his feet. The dog looked up at Mark and Raven, who held back in the shadows, but mostly he just settled in, apparently clear that this was his new assignment.
James, meanwhile, with his teacher’s help, began to write.
“I brought Comet,” he wrote. “I love Comet.”
He drew a picture — a simple rendition of a dog — and then wrote “DOG” in big, blocky letters next to it.
“Are you happy today?” Wilson asked him.
“Yes. Dog,” he answered.
“Me, too,” Wilson said, smiling broadly. “Me, too.”