“We’re going to see Casey.”
That’s what 14-year-old Joey Osinski said Saturday as he hopped into his father’s SUV and headed for the Rosedale Volunteer Fire Department in Penn Hills.
Casey, an 8-week-old female German shepherd whom Joey named, will be more than a companion dog for him and his family.
The canine will be welcomed into the Osinski family’s McKeesport home as a service dog with the potential to quell one of their worst fears.
“I think it would be a nightmare for any parent to have their child wander away unattended,” Joey’s father Joe Osinski said. “But as a parent of a special needs child, that fear increases exponentially.”
Diagnosed with autism at the age of 4, Joey has come leaps and bounds through 10 years of occupational and physical therapies as well as school programs and social services to make him the productive teen he is today as a Serra Catholic High School freshman.
Now, Joey will have the new benefit of developing a bond with a canine companion that also could come to his aid in the event of an emergency.
Thanks to an “Operation Milkbone” grant from the office of Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr., the Autism Center of Pittsburgh is awarding its second service dog at no initial purchase or training cost to the recipient family.
Cindy Waeltermann, founder of the Autism Center of Pittsburgh, said her organization serves as a liaison between affected families and the K9s for Kids program, which trains service dogs to meet the specific needs of special needs children.
Joey was among several youngsters matched with a puppy during Saturday’s meet-and-greet in Penn Hills. Casey journeyed away from her five canine siblings, making her way across a grassy area to sniff Joey’s shoes.
“She’s beautiful,” Joey said, and he knew the dog was his.
Also in the crowd was Becca Major of O’Hara Township, whose son Jake was matched with service dog Sparky with last year’s award.
“When we first got Sparky as a pup, it gave Jake something to focus on,” Major said. “It started to help him with independence.”
K9s for Kids encourages the matched child to take responsibility for his or her dog. Children are active in the dogs’ training program, and relationships are formed almost instantly.
“They bonded right away,” Major said. “Sparky would sleep in Jake’s room, and that comfort helped Jake sleep. He didn’t sleep before.”
Not only did Sparky help ease Jake’s stress level at home, Major said, the dog allowed him to feel more comfortable in public.
“When we take Sparky out with Jake, it’s kind of a gateway for socialization,” she said.
Jake and Sparky’s day-to-day interaction is chronicled in an “Adventures with Sparky, the Autism Service Dog” blog that Major publishes at jakeandsparky.blogspot.com.
The online journal also details an incident when Sparky came to Jake’s aid.
“Jake took off, and Sparky was barking at the door,” Major said. “He had only been through a few months of training at that point, but I hooked him on the leash and he found Jake.”
Jake had wandered up the street.
“He was just four houses away,” Major said. “But he could have been anywhere.”
Deputy District Attorney Tom Swan, who serves as a board member for the Autism Center of Pittsburgh and is the parent of a special needs child, said the D.A.’s office understands the need for canine support in the homes of special needs children.
“I think it’s a good program,” Swan said. “I wanted to see what we could do to help out some of the kids who are runners.”
Since Zappala took his seat in 1998, the district attorney’s office has contributed approximately $450,000 to canine programs in local police departments and public safety agencies throughout the county.
Through its “Operation Milkbone” efforts, the office now has committed to funding the purchase of two children’s service dogs per year for the next several years, Swan said.
Joey’s mother Brenda Osinski said the program has brought joy to her son.
“It’s nice that he’s looking forward to this,” she said. “Sometimes you really have to talk things up to Joey for him to get excited about it. This was something that, as soon as we said he was getting a dog, he was excited right away.”
Swan said he is happy to see the Osinski family benefiting from “Operation Milkbone” and the K9 for Kids program.
Through his role at the district attorney’s office, Swan has had a long working relationship with Joey’s dad, a McKeesport police detective.
Swan also noted that he abstains from the Autism Center of Pittsburgh’s vote on who is awarded the dog because of his deputy district attorney position.
The application process for receiving a dog through the Autism Center of Pittsburgh includes a questionnaire, letters of reference and a biography and care plan for the potential recipient child.