Rare People

The touching story about how a prison-trained dog helped this autistic boy

Associated Press | Posted on

DENVER — Susy Tucker marks the time her autistic son, Zach, began hugging her again by the arrival of Clyde, a chocolate Labrador trained behind bars by a convicted killer.

Within three weeks of Clyde’s arrival at the Tuckers’ home in Colorado Springs, Zach went from petting his dog to wrapping his arms around his mother for the first time in four years. It was a stunning moment, one of many to follow. The boy who once grimaced and whined at any skin-to-skin contact had learned the warmth of touching from a dog.

Zach’s parents had run out of ideas and were skeptical when they stepped into the visiting room at the high-security Sterling prison in June 2011. They were just desperate enough to explore inmate Christopher Vogt’s hunch that he could help their son emerge from his shell.

In prison, Vogt learned to train service dogs for disabled people, and over the course of a decade he has trained scores of dogs that have lived, one at a time, in a cage in his cell.

He later read books about autism and eventually won permission from prison officials to try to train dogs for kids.

The experiment has been a shining success, said Debi Stevens, director of the Prison Trained K-9 Companion Program.

Since Tucker took Clyde home, Vogt and other inmates taught by Vogt have trained another 20 dogs to serve autistic children around the state. Staffers from prisons across the country have visited Colorado prisons in part to learn Vogt’s techniques, in which he acts like an autistic child to teach dogs to respond, Stevens said.

Vogt has since written and illustrated two children’s books about how dogs can help autistic kids.

It wasn’t easy persuading officials that Vogt should speak with Zach directly instead of just relaying messages across a visiting room.

“I get it,” Vogt said recently in the visiting room of Trinidad Correctional Facility, a minimum-security prison to which he has been transferred since meeting Zach. Authorities were hesitant about putting a young child in close contact with a killer.

Vogt and David Doremus were convicted of killing Clifton resident Gregg Lane Staley on Feb. 9, 1995. Four years later, each got 48-year prison terms for second-degree murder. Vogt is eligible for parole in 2018.

Zach’s dad, Arthur, a special-education teacher in Harrison School District 2, recalls Vogt asking very personal questions about Zach’s behavior so that Vogt could train Clyde accordingly.

Zach was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism. The walls of his upstairs bedroom are plastered with posters of Tyrannosaurus rex and glass-encased pin boards displaying rare butterflies. He has scores of science-show DVDs filling a bookcase.

Children such as Zach become encapsulated in their own world as they filter out everything around them except what interests them. They become confused about the outside world.

Zach would wince when touched, claiming it hurt. He stopped hugging his parents when he was 5. By age 9, the third-grader was still doing kindergarten work.

Susy Tucker learned that private service-dog trainers charged $20,000 or more; but the prison program trained them for a fraction of the cost. The Tuckers paid $450 for Clyde and gave Colorado Correctional Industries, which runs the rehabilitation program, $300 for six months of training.

“At first, I didn’t know what to expect,” Zach said after being told he was going to prison. “I thought, ‘What, are you kidding? Are you people this crazy?’ “

But, he added, Vogt turned out to be “pretty nice.”

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Information from: The Denver Post, http://www.denverpost.com

Copyright The Associated Press

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