Four-year-old Alex Romero has no sense of danger.
He’s an escape artist who can evaporate in crowds at the mall or run toward cars while walking the sidewalks.
Alex, who was diagnosed on the autism spectrum, is unaware of his limits – and his parents Vanessa and Moises can’t afford to take their eyes off him. A two-minute distraction is plenty of time for Alex to get into trouble. It’s not uncommon for Vanessa to run to the bathroom and return to find her son hanging from the stair railing.
When he was younger, Vanessa used to carry him close to her, strapped in a baby carrier. But as he grew, the Romeros knew they needed help to keep him safe.
They were hoping to find ways to correct his tantrums, his obsessive and repetitive behavior and his hyperactivity. But the Romeros didn’t want to rely on medication as the main solution.
The nonprofit 4 Paws for Ability offered an alternative, training a service dog that would accompany and assist Alex in his daily activities.
The Ohio organization, with links in the Lehigh Valley, pairs prime service dogs with people with disabilities. The process can take more than a year while the family raises the money to complete the dog training.
Vanessa raised $13,000 to get the dog after a long application process. The organization absorbed the remainder of the cost for the $22,000 dog, Tanaka, a Labrador mix with impressive instincts.
Alex had to get clearance from a doctor saying that he would be able to care for his companion. Once that part of the process was done, Vanessa began recording her son’s behavior and sending the videos to 4 Paws for Ability, which used what they saw to train the dog in accordance with Alex’s most pressing needs.
The family recently traveled to Ohio and trained at the nonprofit for two weeks. Tanaka arrived at their Breinigsville home this month. His impact is already being felt.
Tanaka remains by Alex’s side all day. He is trained to notice when the boy is about to go into a tantrum. His job is to run to Alex and distract him with kisses and other movement to get his attention.
Alex usually brushes the dog away initially, his dad says. But Tanaka perseveres, putting his body on top of Alex to apply pressure and comfort him. The tantrums, which used to go on and on, now last an average of one to two minutes, Vanessa says.
Tanaka is often tethered to Alex, particularly during the boy’s daily walks with his mother. Vanessa used to be tense, apprehensive that Alex would drift away toward the street.
“Yesterday, I went to pick up my daughter at the bus and for the first time I didn’t have to hold him,” Vanessa says. “He can’t pull the dog because they are attached.”
Tanaka is also there to help Alex fall asleep at night. He lies on Alex’s legs and cuddles with him until the child drifts to sleep. Then he abandons the bed for the floor.
Tanaka’s calm temperament has made a believer out of Moises. The dad used to be afraid of big dogs. He was also not used to living so close to a canine. The dogs that he had growing up usually remained outside the house and did not enjoy the privileges that Tanaka has earned in the house.
“When he has the vest on,” Moises says, “he’s working. Otherwise, he’s a normal dog.” And it’s during those moments of relaxation, when Alex is calm watching his favorite Mickey Mouse episode, that Moises finds time to bond with Tanaka.
Tanaka responds to Moises with loyalty, as long as Alex or Vanessa doesn’t need him.
“She’s is the alpha male even though she’s a female,” Moises says about his wife.
“I’m the one who handles him the most,” Vanessa clarifies.
Tanaka trained for a year before he met the Romeros. He spent time at a prison, learning about obedience, and another stint at a foster family to learn about socialization.
The Romeros rejoice at their good fortune. The need for service dogs is immense, and there are only a handful of organizations in the country training these loyal companions. Many families struggle for years to secure the funds necessary to obtain their dog.
Yet the Romeros received plenty of support from their community. It was a humbling experience for Moises, who wasn’t used to asking for help. It was perhaps the most important lesson the family has learned.
“It’s certainly good to rely on others and accept the help that they offer,” Moises says. “You can’t do it on your own, that’s why it’s called community.
“When help knocks on your door, open the door.”