When stay-at-home mom Brandi Guillet, 42, first laid eyes on Ellie the dog, she knew she had found the perfect pet companion for her 6-year-old son. Connor is non-verbal and on the autism spectrum. Boxer breed Ellie, age 3, is deaf and has been trained to respond to sign language.
While words and commands aren't part of their relationship, Connor and Ellie already share an incredible bond.
“Boxers are known to be great with kids but there is definitely something special about Ellie,” said Brandi, who lives with her family in Cocoa, Florida. “When Connor has tantrums she will stand over him as if to comfort him. When he is upset, Connor will immediately go to Ellie for comfort.”
Brandi and her husband, Chad Guillet, 45, logistics manager for the Navy Air Warfare Center Orlando and a member of the Florida Air National Guard, adopted their son Connor when he was just four weeks old. The boy was born addicted to opiates and had to undergo a detox program. Genetic testing further revealed that he would also have special needs and medical issues, but that did not deter them. “He needed a family and we wanted a family. It was a match made in heaven,” said Brandi.
When Brandi shared the story of her son and his best friend with a Facebook page called Deaf Dogs Rock, her post went viral. There's definitely something to the animal-human bond when it comes to helping children with autism — researchers have even studied it.
“Children with autism may especially benefit from interacting with dogs, which can provide unconditional, nonjudgmental love and companionship,” said Dr. Gretchen Carlisle, a research fellow with the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction at the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine, who authored a study on the subject.
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder present from early childhood that impairs a person’s ability to communicate and interact socially with others. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identifies 1 in 68 American children as on the autism spectrum, with over three million people affected in the U.S.
Brandi believes there is something special about the connection that can form between people on the autism spectrum and dogs. “Connor can tantrum and melt down badly and it can be loud. Ellie just stands over him, it’s as if she knows he needs comfort but she can’t hear the noise so it doesn’t make her nervous. ”
The couple already had a boxer — eight year-old Chowda — and had never considered adopting a deaf dog. But after attending a rescue event and meeting at Coastal Boxer Rescue they knew they wanted to foster Ellie. “When Jon showed me that Ellie responds to sign I had a light bulb go off,” said Brandi. “She let Connor go up to her, touch her face and kiss her and put his arms around her neck to hug her. She was beyond gentle with him.” Brandi is awaiting papers to make Ellie’s adoption official.
Jon Nowlin, who has been a volunteer and behavioral trainer with CBR for the past five years and is known as the “Deaf Dog Whisperer,” said he has trained many deaf dogs and that they are among the easiest to train because they follow commands almost effortlessly and without distraction.
“Don’t discredit special needs animals,” he said. “We tell people time and time again that deaf dogs do not know that they are deaf!” He advises potential foster parents to not rush the adoption and to trust the recommendation of the shelter or foster parents. “If you are looking for an addition to your family, taking the extra time to correctly introduce them will pay off in the long run,” he said.
Brandi says that even though Ellie is deaf, she doesn’t require any special care. “It’s just a little different to get her attention than it is with other dogs,” she said. “And she is super smart. Anyone who can sign can communicate with a deaf dog. Boxers are work though! They are goofy, silly, playful and loving.”
Even Connor’s teachers have seen a positive effect from the relationship. “Ellie coming into Connor’s life is such a beautiful thing,” said Elizabeth Pobjecky, a behavior technician at Caladium Learning Center where Connor attends school. “Connor can do simple sign language to Ellie. It’s amazing because Ellie is almost human with him! It’s a win-win for both of them.”