Aidan Elliott sat and stared as the dogs were brought in one by one. His eyes darted around the room as he tried to keep a smile to himself.
It was a nondescript space the size of a church cafeteria, with a few dozen chairs placed side by side against all four walls.
But it's a special room.
It’s where breakthroughs, barks and best friends are made.
Aidan was born with Down syndrome. He was nonverbal until he was about 8 years old, and then he would say one or two words.
He wandered off, as many kids do, but Aidan couldn’t communicate where he was going or respond to shouts from his parents. A few times his parents lost him, one time at a water park for 10 minutes. Aidan needed to use the bathroom.
That's why his parents, Jennifer and Scotte Elliott, and younger brothers Brendan and Liam were with him in that special room at 4 Paws for Ability in Xenia, which is about 60 miles southwest of Columbus near Dayton.
4 Paws is a nonprofit that trains service dogs to tend to people with specific special needs, including severe autism, Down syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorders and seizures.
The organization was started in the late 1990s by Karen Shirk, who had battled myasthenia gravis, a disease that causes the weakening of skeletal muscles.
Shirk, after being refused a service dog multiple times for various reasons, got a puppy and trained the dog to help her survive and find a purpose in life.
The training facility has grown significantly in 20 years and has placed dogs in 49 states and in Germany, Switzerland, Japan and Australia. The agency pairs more than 100 dogs a year with people who have specific needs.
How it works
It’s a significant commitment to get a dog from 4 Paws. Families are required to raise $17,000 before being placed on a waiting list. The dogs are not covered by insurance.
“For us I was so worried about losing Aidan or him getting hit by a car I was willing to do whatever,” Jennifer Elliott said. “Everything I had found before that was a watch or bracelet [to track him] that he won’t wear.”
An application must be approved. Families are required to send videos of the good, bad and ugly behavior of the person getting the service dog.
And it can take a few years to get a service dog.
Once families are accepted, they must train with the dogs for several days at the 4 Paws campus before the dog can be placed in the home. The Eliotts trained with Kelcy for 12 days.
4 Paws breeds their dogs on site and trains them almost from birth to be comfortable around people, said KaLynn Clark, director of volunteer engagement for the center.
It costs $40,000 to $60,000 to train a dog based on needs. The dogs live with a foster family for their first year and then return to the 4 Paws training facility to be specifically trained.
The typical dog is placed with a family at 18 months old, Clark said.
The center partners with 22 universities to foster dogs with college students, along with five area prisons and several traditional foster homes.
The center claims to be the first in the U.S. to train seizure-alert dogs. The dogs alert those around them of their owner having a seizure by barking until help arrives.
“It’s so rewarding, knowing these dogs have a bigger purpose,” Clark said, “whether it’s to give that parent security with another set of eyes and nose [or] having the ability to help someone with a disability and allow them to have a friendship with a dog.”
The group’s seizure-alert dogs are featured in a new Netflix documentary series released earlier this month called "Dogs."
Clark said the center will entertain an application of anyone needing a service dog. Those interested in dogs or volunteering can go to its website at 4pawsforability.org.
Once a class of dogs is ready for service, families are notified and a date is set.
About a dozen families gather at a time in that big room. Introductions are done one at a time. Every family must wait until their dog is brought into the room.
A dog of his own
That's why Aidan sat nervously waiting his turn for a dog that day in April 2015.
Jennifer Elliott was already crying before trainers brought Kelcy out. She had spent a year searching for a dog like Kelcy. Searching for a way to communicate and keep track of her compassionate and sensitive son. Searching for a friend to keep Aidan occupied and ease her fears about losing her gentle wanderer in a crowd.
Kelcy, a then 13-month-old golden retriever the shade of a toasted marshmallow, burst into the room and was led straight to Aidan. The two nuzzled each other and immediately bonded, a relief to trainers and parents since that doesn't always happen.
Kelcy was trained to track Aidan by scent, to stop certain behaviors or meltdowns, and to be tethered to him when needed.
Kelcy has been with the Elliotts in their Lewis Center home for three years now. Aidan, now 13, is able to hold conversations and talk in full sentences.
Jen said Kelcy didn’t help that happen, but said the dog has helped Aidan be more comfortable around children and develop more social skills.
When Aidan gets upset and cries, Kelcy licks his tears away and comforts him.
Aidan said his favorite things about Kelcy are “hugs.” He doesn’t have to be tethered to Kelcy much anymore because he doesn’t want to be away from her.
It is a growing experience for Aidan’s brothers, too. Because the dog needs to be focused on Aidan, his brothers aren’t supposed to feed Kelcy, give her many treats or play with her to the point Kelcy chooses them over Aidan.
The family has also had to deal with issues such as people that want to come up and pet Kelcy in public and some business owners who have questioned why Kelcy needs to come inside their stores. The Elliotts said 4 Paws trained them on how to handle those situations.
But Kelcy has been life-changing for the Elliott family. She has turned Jennifer, a self-proclaimed “cat person,” into a dog lover. The family has even fostered other dogs for 4 Paws.
“I have never been to a place where it is such a family,” Jennifer said. “Everyone at 4 Paws is so accepting ... and you are surrounded by families that are going through the same things and everyone is accepting of you.”