Man’s best friend aids littlest ones too

by Lauren Odomirok

MOUNT HOLLY – Josh and Christen Sigmon have busy schedules as parents to Michael, 9, Liam, 3, Colin, 2, and McKinley, 1. So the last thing they planned to do was add a dog to the family line-up.

But that was before Liam was diagnosed with autism, before they realized how helpful trained service dogs could be for children struggling to communicate, adapt to change, stay on task and avoid wandering off at the mall.

“Early on, Josh and I both thought that something wasn’t exactly right, but we weren’t able to put our finger on it,” Christen said.

Baby Liam was colicky, and he often experienced restless nights. He was diagnosed with a speech delay when he wasn’t saying common words like “mama” by his first birthday.

The diagnoses kept rolling in.

At two years old, Liam developed sensory processing disorder, then pervasive development disorder not otherwise specified, or PDD-NOS. A few months later, a neurologist uttered the one word that changed everything: autism.

Autism is a neural disorder that affects information processing in the brain. It’s characterized by impaired social interaction and communication as well as restricted and repetitive behavior.

“A lot of times with parents of autistic children, it’s murky. They don’t know what’s wrong starting out. They don’t know the path,” Josh said. “The doctors are really hesitant to put a label on someone justifiably.”

The Sigmons knew the best thing to do was introduce Liam to a social environment, and he attends a preschool at First United Methodist Church in Mount Holly.

“He’s had the same teacher for two years now and the same classroom, and that’s minimized a lot of the issues, because children with autism really struggle with change,” Christen said.

Liam also undergoes occupational and speech therapy as well as hippotherapy at Shining Hope Farms, a form of therapy where a trained professional uses the characteristic movements of horses to help autistic children improve their motor and sensory input.

“I was fairly skeptical of how an autistic child or any type of special needs child could benefit from essentially what I thought was riding a horse,” said Josh. “One of the first times he came back from riding his horse Oreo, I’d never heard him talk more. I can’t explain exactly what happened, except that the therapy with the horses is some sort of calming influence that allows him to open up.”

After one of Liam’s hippotherapy instructors, Ellen Key, worked with him about eight months, she brought up the benefits of service dogs.

Christen soon came across The Service Dog Institute in Simpsonville, S.C., a nonprofit dedicated to training and matching dogs with special needs children to help them perform skilled tasks, interact with others and live more independently in the world.

“We train a dog just for that child. It’s not a generic process,” Melissa Yetter, director of the Service Dog Institute, said. “A lot of organizations say, ‘Here’s your dog,’ and there’s no follow-up. We’re not like that. We check in at least once a year to make sure the dog is healthy, that it can still be of service, and we will recertify the dog for another 12 months.”

It takes a little over a year to train a dog, generally a Golden Retriever or Labrador Retriever, and it costs $15,000 on average to cover the costs of breeding, training, and follow-up house calls. Children visit the institute frequently during the training process to become familiar with their new best friend.

“The dog is not a robot. It’s a companion and a helper,” Yetter said. “The most rewarding part is the last day of training when the child turns to me and says, ‘Is it time for me to take my dog home?’”

Yetter said these dogs often acts as conduits between the children they serve and others because special needs children may not have many friends. She’s seen the children beam when they realize they’re “super-special,” able to “take their dog to restaurants, movies and hotels.”

When Liam receives his furry friend, he’ll stay teathered to the animal who will protect him in public and sleep with him at night, acting as an extra comfort.

After seven to 10 years of service, the service dog becomes a beloved, and very trained, household pet, and the child may get a new dog to help develop advanced skill sets.

“A service dog is not a solution, just a component to help with your child,” Christen said.

Want to help?

If you’d like to help Liam get a service dog, contact his mother, Christen Sigmon, at or 704-820-8265.

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