Susy Tucker’s 11-year-old son Zach has Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning type of autism that leaves him with plenty of challenges. The Colorado Springs boy had trouble relating to others, and stopped letting his parents hug him at age 5. Zach fell behind in school, and was becoming more isolated when his parents sought help from an innovative program.
Christopher Vogt is an inmate at the Trinidad Correctional Facility in southern Colorado, convicted for second-degree murder. While Vogt served his 48-year term, he began learning how to train service dogs through the Prison Trained K-9 Companion program. After a decade of practice, Vogt became so skilled at teaching the animals that prison officials gave him permission to train dogs for kids with autism and other special needs.
Vogt studied books about autism to understand how a dog might help kids with the disorder. Each dog he trains sleeps with him in his cell, and accompanies him while he stands in lines and goes through his daily prison routine. Vogt mimics the behaviors kids with autism might display, and teaches the dogs to gently “nudge” him out of these spells with their noses.
When the Tucker family was looking for help with their son, they learned that trained service dogs can cost $20,000 or more. But the Prison Trained K-9 Companion Program would provide them with a specially-trained dog for only $750, much of which is used to keep the program running. When the Tuckers decided to try a dog trained by Vogt to help their son, Vogt asked them detailed questions about Zach’s behaviors so he could train a dog named Clyde to serve Zach. Then they traveled to a prison in Sterling, Colo. several times so Vogt could teach Zach how to interact with the dog.
Since Zach brought Clyde home in 2011, his transformation has been remarkable. Zach stopped crying for hours every time he went to bed. When he was in third grade, he was working at the kindergarten level. Now he’s caught up to his classmates and is even advanced in math, with the help of Clyde, who accompanies him to school. Zach told Kirk Mitchell of the Denver Post, “Taking care of Clyde was really freaking hard. It’s paying off. He keeps my anxiety down. The focus factor helped.”
Ami Nunn, Zach’s special-education teacher, told Mitchell, “Having Clyde has allowed him to open up to people in a way that I don’t think he would have otherwise. He just has blossomed.”
And Susy Tucker has a prisoner and a special dog to thank for the fact that, after four years of shirking her touch, her son began hugging her again.