Nov 2019 Steamboat Pilot & Today
Theo Giattini snuggles with his service dog, Anu, in downtown Steamboat Springs
Theo Giattini is 6 years old. He attends Strawberry Park Elementary School. When he’s not in school, he likes to swim and catch bugs and lizards. He loves dinosaurs. Anu is 18 months old, with blond fur and paws that are still a little too big for his body. He’s a full-blooded golden retriever, and he eats like a horse. Anu also likes to swim, though he’s not allowed in pools. Together, Anu, Theo and Theo’s 5-year-old sister, Sophia, play chase.
From now on, Theo and Anu are a pair, though their relationship is more than a boy and his dog. Theo has autism. He was born deaf, and he uses a cochlear implant to hear. Anu is a service dog, and he’s specially trained to comfort Theo and keep him safe. “It’s been a whole healing process for our family,” Jolene Giattini said. “(Anu) has brought a calmness. … I just think he was the last piece of our family. We’re now complete.”
Anu joined the family in September. He and Theo live in North Routt with Theo’s parents, Jolene and Ted Giattini, Sophia and the family’s 9-year-old border collie mix, Jasper. It took the community to connect Anu with the Giattini family. The Giattinis started the process two and a half years ago. They worked with 4 Paws for Ability, an organisation that works to pair service dogs with children with disabilities. The organisation asks families to pay or fundraise $17,000 of the estimated $40,000 to $60,000 it takes to train and care for the service dogs, according to its website. The Giattinis raised that money in about a year, with help from several community organisations and donors. Donations also funded the family’s trip to Ohio to meet, train with and bring home Anu. “We just want to say thank you to everybody,” Jolene said. “The Yampa Valley Autism Program, the WZ Giving Circle, Horizons — they have all donated a lot and been very supportive. It definitely couldn’t have happened without them. This is going to change his life. He’s going to have the best friend forever now and somebody, besides us, to take care of him.”
Before he got to the Giattinis, Anu learned basic skills as he was trained by inmates through 4 Paws’ prison program. Then, he lived for about eight months with a woman who trained him in service dog skills, getting him comfortable wearing a vest and behaving well in public. Anu walked with her at her graduation from the University of Kentucky before heading to his own version of graduate school: specific, advanced training to serve Theo’s needs. In September, the Giattinis met Anu for the first time and completed their own 12-day training with him at the 4 Paws facility in Ohio.
In the few months that Anu has lived with the family, he’s already made a difference. Theo is more independent at school, Jolene said, and Ted said Theo’s teachers and paraprofessionals have raved about his behavior at Strawberry Park. Anu will join Theo at school in January. While Anu’s job is to assist Theo, he’s part of the family. Sophia helps feed and care for Anu. After a hard day, Anu “turns into a big mush” and snuggles up to Ted.
“The last four years have been pretty difficult for our family,” Jolene said. A few years ago, Ted was involved in an accident that resulted in a leg amputation. They learned Theo had autism when he was 2 1/2. “It’s been a whole healing process for our family,” she said. “(Anu) has brought a calmness. … I just think he was the last piece of our family. We’re now complete.”
Pictured from left are Ted, Sophia, Jolene and Theo. Jolene said her son Theo’s service dog “was the last piece of our family.” Anu is an 18-month-old golden retriever. He will help keep Theo safe and provide comfort to the boy.
Before Anu arrived, Theo ran away about once or twice per week. He still runs when he’s upset or doesn’t get what he wants, Jolene said. This isn’t uncommon in children with autism spectrum disorders. According to the Organization for Autism Research, nearly half of children with autism attempt to wander or run away, and they run away at higher instances than siblings who do not have an autism spectrum disorder. This is called elopement. This would be nerve-wracking for parents anywhere, but add in the bears, mountain lions, forest and feet of winter snow outside of the family’s home in North Routt, and it becomes very scary for the Giattinis. Theo’s smart, Jolene said, and he’s figured out the locks Ted and Jolene installed to try to keep him in the house.
“Sometimes, he’s gotten out of the house — and I know other autistic families get this — but your heart stops because you don’t know where he’s at,” Jolene said. “You can’t get there fast enough. You can’t listen hard enough. You can’t,” Ted said.
Anu is trained to both prevent Theo from getting too far and to track him if he does elope. The dog knows to listen for Theo, too, as parts of Theo’s cochlear implant are unplugged for bedtime, meaning he can’t hear at night. In stores or out and about in Denver, Anu and Theo will each wear harnesses that tether them together with a 5-foot leash. If Theo starts to run away, Anu will lie down, anchoring Theo. “All you have to say to Anu, if Theo decided to bolt, is ‘down,’ and he would just go down and anchor right there,” Ted said.
If Theo elopes, Anu can also track where Theo’s been by following his scent. When he’s commanded to “find your boy,” the dog catches the scent and follows it to locate Theo.
Ted said one of the hardest things for Theo is falling asleep. At bedtime, Jolene leans on him to help him sleep. Eventually, they hope Anu will take on the responsibility and sleep with Theo.
Jolene thinks Anu will also help Theo as he’s older. “What if somebody breaks into his house at night when he’s older, and he can’t hear? The dog will protect him. What if there’s a fire? We’d have the flashing lights, but what if he doesn’t see him? The dog’s going to,” Jolene said. “It’s more safety than anything. Those are things that as they grow together, they’ll learn together, too.”