Xena the Warrior Puppy, rescued from abuse, helps 8-year-old boy with autism

Image: Jonny Hickey takes a nap with his family's three dogs
Jonny takes a nap surrounded by the Hickey family's three dogs: Xena; Sally, a Labrador retriever that Jonny's mom Linda rescued; and Petunia, an aging dachshund that Linda nursed through spine surgery. "Of course, Xena found Jonny's lap," Linda said.Today

For most of Jonny Hickey’s eight years of life, solitude has suited him just fine.

He adores his mom and dad, of course, and he loves his older brother. He also views some special ed teachers as rare, trusted allies. Still, none of those people could get many words out of him.

It’s not that Jonny can’t talk. He knows how to speak, and he can read with proficiency. But autism left him closed off and isolated. Most of his social interactions result in painful awkwardness; unfamiliar situations can trigger terror, tantrums or both. Seeking comfort and predictability, he’d embrace solitary activities; on a typical day after school, he’d spend hours playing with marbles in silence.

Jonny Hickey, 8, plays alone with marbles at home. "He has a tough time making friends," mom Linda Hickey said of her son, who has autism.Today

Then, about two months ago, everything changed. Jonny forged a connection so unlikely that people familiar with it describe it as a miracle. His new confidante brings out the best in him — his playfulness, his cute singing voice, his verbal assessments of everything he sees and experiences.

Jonny connected with a dog.

“He is non-stop chatter now!” Jonny’s mother, Linda Hickey, 44, told TODAY.com. “He has so much to say about his math, about what he did in P.E.

“He is the happiest child that I’ve ever seen him be in eight years.”

Jonny Hickey talks incessantly to his new best friend. His mom said she's thrilled that her family's formerly quiet home has so much "spunk." "It has laughter from a little one, and it has soooo much talking," she said.Today

A lover and a fighter
Jonny’s transformation begins with the miracle that the dog survived to meet Jonny at all.

Mere months before she bounded into Jonny’s world, the pup was brought to the DeKalb County Animal Services’ shelter in Georgia after she collapsed in someone’s yard. When staff members saw her, they recoiled in shock.

When Jonny's future dog arrived at an animal shelter in Georgia in September 2012, she weighed 4 pounds and was close to death.Today

“I’ve been doing rescue probably for about 12 years, and I had never seen a dog that young in that sort of condition,” said Chrissy Kaczynski, who works for Animal Services and is a founding member of the rescue group Friends of DeKalb Animals. “I brought her home with me and I didn’t think she’d make it through the night.”

But with fluids, nutritional supplements and an urgent vet visit, the puppy began to perk up. Veterinary and shelter staff guessed she was about 4 months old and must have been confined — and starved — in a cage before being dumped.

"Usually a dog on the street can find at least some food, but in this case she must have been locked up somewhere with no food or water at all," said Chrissy Kaczynski, who served as the dog's foster mom for five months and nursed her back to health.Today

“She was completely dehydrated and her nose was all scabbed over ... like she had been trying to escape something,” Kaczynski said.

Her rapid recovery prompted Kaczynski to dub her “Xena the Warrior Puppy.” A Facebook page soon followed. One local who found Xena’s story irresistible was Linda Hickey, Jonny’s mom.

Xena recovered quickly once she received proper care. DeKalb County Police are still seeking her abuser.Today

“Yes, I fell in love with a dog on the Internet!” said Linda, whose family lives in Johns Creek, Ga., with two other lovable dogs that are a bit too old or frail to play non-stop with a young boy.

When Friends of DeKalb Animals announced that Xena, believed to be a Staffordshire terrier mix, was strong enough to appear at a fund-raising event in November, Linda brought her family to meet the puppy in person.

“We were literally there for four minutes, and Xena ran right up to Jonny and my husband,” Linda said. “I already loved this dog, and after I met her, I really loved this dog.”

See footage of Xena and Jonny’s first encounter on 11Alive.com

Not surprisingly, the family adopted Xena soon after.

On their first trial day together — Feb. 11 — Linda decided to bring Xena along in the minivan when she picked Jonny up from school. Jonny smiled widely, then melted in the onslaught of unconditional affection.

“From that very first day, that dog was sitting in his lap in the car seat, giving him all these kisses,” Linda said. “And that’s where she’s been ever since.”

Love at first kiss: Jonny Hickey opened up as soon as Xena entered his life. "There is no social awkwardness for him with her," his mom said.Today

The calming presence of dogs
Research regarding the effects of companion animals on kids with autism is limited but encouraging. One study published earlier this year revealed that children with autism spectrum disorder were more likely to talk, laugh, make eye contact and show other positive social behaviors in the presence of guinea pigs than they were in the presence of toys.

And in a 2006 pilot investigation, children with autism spoke and interacted much more when they could pet dogs or rabbits, throw balls for dogs, ride llamas and engage with animals in other ways during occupational therapy sessions.

Xena accompanies Jonny on an outing to Petco, where dogs are allowed inside the store. "He is so, so happy when Xena is there," Jonny's mom said.Today

For more than a decade, Autism Service Dogs of America has paired children with specially trained dogs that have a calming effect. In the dogs’ presence, kids have an easier time getting through their school days or handling simple outings with their parents.

Just the other day, Linda Hickey tried bringing Jonny to a familiar salon for a haircut. Jonny’s anxieties bested him, and he just couldn’t do it. The next day, Linda turned the haircut into an outing for the whole family, Xena included. Her husband Grant, 50, brought Jonny into the salon, and Linda stayed outside with Xena.

“I’d wave her paw so he could see her,” Linda said. “With Xena there, he got the haircut.”

Watch a video of Jonny singing "You've Got a Friend in Me" to puppy Xena

Xena helps Jonny in other ways as well. He’s always struggled with personal-space issues, but he’s fine with letting the dog lean on him, lie down on him and perch precariously on his lap. It doesn’t matter that she weighs 43 pounds and he weighs 48.

“I’m not a doctor, but I do know Jonny has a zillion sensory issues and I wonder if that pressure is calming for him,” Linda speculated. “Maybe it’s like a beanbag chair. A beanbag chair is great for him because it’s like a giant hug.”

Jonny takes a nap surrounded by the Hickey family's three dogs: Xena; Sally, a Labrador retriever that Jonny's mom Linda rescued; and Petunia, an aging dachshund that Linda nursed through spine surgery. "Of course, Xena found Jonny's lap," Linda said.Today

‘A pretty perfect team’
Since the adoption, Linda has been providing updates to Xena’s 19,000-plus fans on Facebook, an activity that’s been a balm to her.

“At first I didn’t tell anyone on Facebook that Jonny had autism, and they fell in love with him without judgment,” Linda said. “And then when I told them all that he had autism, they still loved him. It just brought tears to my eyes, actually.”

Linda’s Facebook experience was so positive she decided to make a YouTube video featuring her son and his dog to lend support for Autism Awareness Month and Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Month, both happening in April.

“My name is Jonny and this is my puppy, Xena,” he says in the video, as his pup rests near him with a supportive paw on his lap. “Well, my Xena was hurt really bad by some not-so-nice people. And I have autism. So I think we make a pretty perfect team to spread the words to be nice to animals, and nice to kids like me.”

While the Hickeys are more hopeful now than they’ve ever been about Jonny’s future, they find it best to focus with laser-like precision on the day they’re living, and possibly the day after that.

“I’m just trying to make every day be the best learning day it can be for Jonny,” said his mother, who works part time as a preschool teacher. “High school, college — I do dream for these things, but right now I have to buckle down and work hard every day to get him there.

“I’m a therapist for Jonny. I’m a teacher for Jonny. It’s non-stop learning here because it has to be. He deserves it.”

What she never expected was that she’d have a back-up therapist and teacher in Xena.

“I really believe God had a plan,” Linda said. “These two were destined to be together — to save each other at a level that humans just can’t understand.”

To watch an animal rescue video showing Xena’s incredible improvement over the span of one month, click here. To learn more about the work of Friends of DeKalb Animals, click here.

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