Meghan Roberts tells her son, Brody, for his 10th birthday that his service dog is ready to meet him in Ohio. The family brought
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Meghan Roberts tells her son, Brody, for his 10th birthday that his service dog is ready to meet him in Ohio. The family brought "Chipotle" home late last month.

For Meghan Roberts, a dog is mom’s best friend. That’s because her son has autism.

Chip — short for Chipotle — is a Golden Newfie, which is a cross between the Newfoundland and the Golden Retriever dog breeds. He’s a giant ball of long, black fur, who weighs about 100 pounds. Chip’s at the perfect height for neck hugging when Brody is on his knees.

When Brody feels overwhelmed and tries to block out sound by sticking his fingers in his ears, Chip gently nuzzles Brody's leg. Chip also encourages Brody to sleep in his own bed all night.

Roberts and her son were one of three Georgia families travelling to Ohio for a two-week training class this January.

“It really felt like you’re meeting a new baby,” Roberts said.

One in 68 children nationwide have been identified as having Autism Spectrum Disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But evidence suggests that the prevalence rate in Georgia is higher than the national average, according to the Autism Society of Georgia, which estimates 155,000 individuals living with ASD. Prevalence among boys is 1 in 39, and prevalence in girls is 1 in 181, the Society said.

In the last 15 years, 31 Georgia families found help from 4 Paws For Ability. The nonprofit organization places 100 dogs a year for veterans and children with special needs such as autism and seizure disorders. That’s what brought Jeannie Johnson and her daughter, Kira, from Georgia to Xenia, Ohio, last month.

Kira has seizure disorder, behavioral issues and problems with mobility, her mother said.

“She has a rare disorder where her body doesn't metabolize fat for energy, so she can never be in a state of fasting,” Johnson said. “If her blood sugar drops, it could be fatal for her so we needed a dog that could do multiple things and handle multiple disabilities.”

Johnson researched Milton-based Canine Assistants, which provides free service dogs trained for seizure-alert, but Kira was already 6 and the waiting list was long. Kira's chronicles can be followed in a private Facebook group.

“They wouldn't place the dog with anyone under 8, and so we kept looking.”

On its website, Canine Assistants says the waiting list is currently more than five years long, and they only place dogs based on needs to families on the list. One may not purchase a service dog; the dogs are free.

Roberts’ son was denied a service dog from Canine Assistants because his needs changed while on the waiting list for more than two years, Roberts said.

Brody was born a month early, but he weighed 10 pounds, 2 ounces.

“He was a big boy, but I wasn’t overly concerned about it,” Roberts said.

But about two months later, a neurologist wanted to test Brody for hydrocephaly. A CT scan showed the possibility Brody would be paralyzed on one side and an MRI was ordered. The cortex of her son’s brain wasn’t developing correctly.

“At that point, I was told I shouldn’t expect Brody to walk or talk,” Roberts said. “I think that's when my fight became my fight. I wasn't going to allow something that a doctor told me to define who my child was going to be.”

Originally, Roberts thought Brody would need a dog to help stabilize him so he could walk and balance. He was 5 or 6 when he was diagnosed with autism. Roberts learned about 4 Paws For Ability from another Georgia family with a service dog. Jennifer Schwenker’s twin boys have autism and a black service dog named Barkley. Brody met Barkley at a hot-air balloon event in Kennesaw about four years ago. The atmosphere quickly overwhelmed Brody. 

“Barkley was able to walk with Brody down on the field with the hot air balloons, and he was fine once the dog was with him,” Roberts said. “So, at that point I went ahead and applied with 4 Paws.”

Though 4 Paws For Ability is nonprofit, training the dogs is costly and families are responsible for raising $17,000 before a dog will be assigned to their family.

Brody turned 10 in January and got the best surprise of his life as he celebrated turning double digits. Mom, grandparents and even Schwenker, her boys and Barkley showed up at a local Chipotle restaurant to share the news that Chip was ready to meet.

The first class of graduates included dogs for Brody Roberts, Kira Johnson and a third Georgia family.

When they returned through snow, sleet and iced-over highways to Georgia, Meghan had her bed to herself for the first time in a year. Chip slept on a cooling mat next to Brody and Brody stayed calm in his bed the entire evening. The following weekend, Brody made if through his first Mass.

Chip celebrated his second birthday Jan. 29 with a bone-shaped cake and party hat. Both boy and dog were born in the month of January.

Heracross wasn't the first dog trained for Kira. When the Johnson family arrived at 4 Paws For Ability, their dog was Shelly. Unfortunately, Shelly became overprotective of Kira and wouldn't work as a service dog. Above, mother Jeannie Johnson explains having to retrain with a second dog after days with Shelly.

Kira Johnson and her service dog, Hera.
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Kira Johnson and her service dog, Hera.

Brody sees a photo of his service dog, Chipotle, with his mother, Meghan Roberts. The celebration took place at a Kennesaw Chipotle restaurant.
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Brody sees a photo of his service dog, Chipotle, with his mother, Meghan Roberts. The celebration took place at a Kennesaw Chipotle restaurant.

Mother Meghan Roberts tells Brody for his 10th birthday he will soon meet his service dog, Chip. The celebration took place at a Kennesaw Chipotle restaurant.
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Mother Meghan Roberts tells Brody for his 10th birthday he will soon meet his service dog, Chip. The celebration took place at a Kennesaw Chipotle restaurant.