EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

July 30, 2013

Service dog becomes autistic boy's best friend

Salem Boy's new dog is far more than a pet

By Doug Ireland
direland@eagletribune.com

---- — They’ve known each other for only a short time, but 9-year-old Brady Moran and his new dog, Rocky, are the best of friends.

They also have a special bond unlike a typical boy-dog relationship.

Rocky — part golden retriever, part Labrador retriever — is Brady’s guide dog. He helps the young autistic, sight-impaired child from the time they wake to the time they go to bed at night.

Rocky, who weighs bout 50 pounds, is frequently at Brady’s side, quietly leading him along, and serving as his eyes and ears. But most of all, Rocky, nearly 2, is a calm, comforting friend to a boy who is easily distracted and prone to anxiety attacks.

“He is so gentle and kind,” said Heather Moran, Brady’s mother. “He’s been a lot of help. When we go places, Brady seems more secure.”

The two have been paired together for the last month, thanks to nearly three years of fundraising efforts by the Salem Lions Club. They purchased Rocky through Paws with A Cause. It cost the club about $30,000.

The Lions Club, known internationally for helping the blind, decided it wanted to provide a child with a service dog, club president James Morin said.

Thanks to club member Tina White and the organization’s dog committee, they were able to make that happen. White is the nurse at Lancaster School, where Brady will begin fourth grade this fall.

Rocky won’t be going to school with Brady this year, but the hope is he will be ready to do that next year, when Brady heads for fifth grade.

“To have this come about was huge,” Moran said. “I think Brady is much more comfortable now.”

Brady is just like any other rambunctious 9-year-old boy who likes to play fetch with his dog except he suffers from CHARGE syndrome. It’s a genetic disorder that affects one out of 10,000 people, his mother said.

CHARGE syndrome is characterized by sight, hearing, heart and urinary defects. Those diagnosed with the disease, including Brady, often have autism as well, Moran said.

Brady was diagnosed when he was 2 years old and has had multiple operations. His vision is 20-200. He was born with a cleft palate, cleft lip and malformed ears.

Like other autistic children, Brady’s behavior can be unpredictable, his mother said.

But many children with CHARGE syndrome have serious heart and kidney problems and do not survive, Moran said. All of Brady’s organs are healthy, she said.

“We’re lucky in that sense,” Moran said. “The behavior and vision we can deal with and be OK.”

Brady is expected to live a long life. He wants to be either a meteorologist or a banker, and wants to have children of his own someday.

It took nearly a year for the Lions to bring Brady and Rocky together, Morin said. Rocky needed months of training. The Moran family flew to Michigan last month to pick up Rocky and undergo some training of their own.

“It was a lot of training and learning for Brady, too,” Moran said.

Like any service dog, Rocky had to learn how to stay focused while he was helping Brady.

A badge on Rocky’s blue vest says, “Please don’t pet me. I’m working.”

Rocky is as cool, calm and collected as he appears.

“He will just sit and watch Brady and keep an eye on everything,” Moran said.

That includes Heather and John Moran’s two younger children — Shea, 7, and Maeve, 2.

When a cat suddenly scurried past him yesterday, the big black dog lifted his head, but did not pursue the feline.

Moran said she’s grateful to the organization for their help.

“They are just awesome,” she said.