A boy’s best friend and his best hope for safety

HANCOCK COUNTY – Like most 7-year-old boys, T.J. Durbin is full of energy.

But for a child with autism, that energy can sometimes spell danger. T.J. loves to run and jump around the yard, but he still doesn’t speak and isn’t responsive to his name.

So when he dashed toward oncoming traffic during a family cookout last Fourth of July, his parents realized they had to do something.

They put themselves on waiting lists with nonprofits that provide service dogs trained to guide and protect children like T.J., but the organizations said it could take years to pair him with an animal. Realizing they needed a more immediate solution, they’ve organized an event to raise funds for a service dog, and members of the Greenfield community where T.J.’s mother grew up have rallied around the cause.

Tim and Jerri Durbin, who now live in Noblesville, hope to raise $18,000 — the cost of a specialized service dog — at the upcoming fundraiser, scheduled for Sept. 12 at the Hancock County Fraternal Order of Police. The event, which will run from noon to 7 p.m., will feature live music from Indiana artists, a silent auction, food and entertainment for kids.

“The cost of a service dog has always been prohibitive, but where our son’s life is concerned, we’ve got to do all that we can,” said Tim Durbin, whose wife grew up in Greenfield. “We try to hold his hand everywhere we go, but he’s still gotten loose from us several times, and we can’t really convince him of how dangerous that is.”

Julie Case, owner and trainer at Ultimate K9 in nearby Carmel, has worked with the Durbins to see what one of her animals could do to help T.J.

Case specializes in training autism support dogs, which will not only guide a child away from everyday danger but can also sense when the handler feels anxious or unhappy.

Autism support dogs are often tethered to children by a harness, Case explained, so if their handler dashes toward a street or parking lot, the dog is trained to immediately freeze and lie down.

“It’s like an anchor,” Case said. “It will hold a child in place, which will give the parents time to catch up.”

The animals are also trained to guide and block a child, so even if they’re not tethered to one another, the dog will run ahead and steer a child back to safety.

But perhaps one of the most important services the animals are trained to provide is emotional support, Case said.

“T.J. covers his face with his hands when he’s upset or uncomfortable, so we will train the dog to recognize those signs and then comfort him immediately.”

When a service dog recognizes this behavior, Case said, it might lay its head on its handler’s lap, or whatever is most soothing to the child.

Jerri Durbin, T.J.’s mother, said she and her husband aren’t comfortable taking T.J. to crowded public places, but the dog could change that.

“He’s really fast, so even if we take him to the park, he’ll sprint all over the place,” she said. “But a dog could give us that extra help, so we can walk around without holding his hand the whole time.”

The Durbins have worked with several Hancock County community members and organizations to hold the event.

Case plans to bring several of her service animals in training to the event to demonstrate their skills, and John Hardin, a local veterinarian, will offer vaccinations for cats and dogs.

The family will accept donations at the event, and all vendors will donate a portion of their sales to the cause.

Get involved

Items for a silent auction during the fundraiser are still being sought. If you have an item to donate, contact Jerri Durbin at 317-490-1420.

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Daniel Morgan is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. He can be reached at (317) 477-3228 or dmorgan@greenfieldreporter.com.