Learning to train a service dog wasn’t something Eli Miller thought he’d ever learn to do, much less did he anticipate that he’d become so passionate about it. At this point, it’s become more than a hobby; it’s become a way of life.
Eli is a 20-year-old with Asperger syndrome, a form of autism, who lives with his parents and brother in Harrisburg, Mo. Last year, while he was volunteering at Cedar Creek Therapeutic Riding Center in Columbia, Mo., a woman arrived with a service dog that she was training. Eli quickly became interested in learning the training techniques, and inquired with the woman as to how he could find out more. He contacted Ashley Davis—a certified dog trainer—and soon after, Eli adopted a two-year-old black Labrador retriever named Faith to train to be his own service dog.
Since adopting Faith in the spring of 2014, Eli has taught her to respond to anxiety alerts, asthma alerts and low oxygen levels.
“Faith’s natural instincts are amazing, so I’ve just helped teach her some specific responses to prompts,” Eli says. “For example, if I’m nearing an asthma attack, Faith puts her paws on my lap and gets her nose up next to my face. She senses my change in breathing even before I do, so this warns me that I should go get my inhaler right away.”
Eli also suffers from anxiety—not uncommon for those with autism—and his service dog is a great source of comfort during those episodes. “Faith will literally jump up in my lap—all 90 pounds of her—which is very comforting to me. It really calms me down,” Eli states. “Faith also knows if my dad’s sleep apnea is acting up because his low oxygen levels cause her to go on alert. She’ll get right up in my dad’s face, which causes him to wake up enough to start breathing normally again.”
Many studies in recent years have shown that individuals who own a pet are more likely to be healthy and happy than their counterparts without pets. But add autism to the equation, and having a pet often leads to better social skills and self-assuredness. That has certainly been the case for Eli.
“Since adopting Faith, Eli’s anxiety level has decreased quite a bit and his confidence level has increased,” says Julie Gieseker, an autism team leader with Easter Seals Midwest who works with Eli every other week for an hour and a half. “He also shows more interest in other people and is more comfortable with initiating conversations.”
“Developing a hobby or special interest is especially important for individuals with autism,” states Staci Bowlen, director of autism services for Easterseals Midwest in central Missouri. “Hobbies can help foster creativity and imagination, as well as aid in developing social skills. Oftentimes, too, a hobby is something the whole family can take an interest in and enjoy together.”
Eli spends time every day training Faith, and he has started taking her out in public two or three days a week to work on her obedience in busier settings. Having his service dog with him is a definite comfort to Eli, who sometimes has difficulty crossing busy streets by himself. Faith also gives Eli a sense of confidence and safety that he doesn’t feel when he’s alone in public.
Eli has had a lifelong love of animals and currently has 15 pets: eight turtles, three lizards, two parrots and one sugar glider, in addition to Faith.
“I’d like to open a service dog training kennel sometime in the future,” says Eli, who presently attends Moberly Area Community College and who hopes to become a certified dog trainer. His other career aspirations include going into social work or possibly becoming an occupational therapist.
“My friend Ashley teaches at the Columbia Canine Sports Center, training police dogs for narcotics detection and protection of their handlers,” Eli states. “I’m hoping I can get good enough at this to train there with her someday.”
Eli also plays the violin and enjoys archery.