Animals offer hope for special-needs families
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Animals offer hope for special-needs families

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Harry Nitti, 5 1/2, and his service dog Emmy.

Before the arrival of Emmy in August, Paramus resident Gabrielle Nitti couldn’t visit the grocery store – or attend synagogue – without the help of another strong adult. Nitti’s 5½-year-old son, Harry, is autistic, and “if I let go for one minute, he’d be down two or three aisles,” she said.

But now, with the assistance of Emmy – a 2-year-old Rhodesian Ridgeback trained by New Jersey dog whisperer Janice Wolfe (see Dog whispering changes people’s lives, too, below) – Nitti no longer feels housebound.

If Harry wants to run, “he must bring a 90-pound dog with him,” Nitti explained. “One lead is attached to Harry, and a second one is attached to me,” she said, noting that the dog has been trained to follow her voice and hand commands.

The change has been remarkable, she said. “The dog keeps Harry regulated and reduces the frequency and duration of his tantrums.”

Emmy, a champion showdog given to a rescue facility in Texas when she could no longer breed, was specially trained to join the Nitti family.

“Janice went to find a dog specifically for us,” said Nitti, explaining that after reading articles on service dogs, she learned that there were long waiting lists for the animals as well as high fees. In addition, she said, “[Providers] didn’t assess individual situations and train the dogs to meet your needs. They told us to come down with the family for a while and they’d train the dog. They don’t understand autism.”

Things changed after a discussion with Jean Weiss of River Edge, a fellow congregant at the Jewish Community Center of Paramus.

“She told me about her daughter,” said Nitti, recalling that Weiss was confident that her daughter, Janice Wolfe, could find a dog and train it to serve the Paramus family.

Weiss was right.

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The Nittis received an invitation to Wolfe’s Wyckoff home so that the trainer could assess the family’s challenges.

“We went together, the four of us,” explaining that her husband Warren and their 7 1/2-year-old son Jonathan went as well. Harry, who has a sleep disorder, was not yet awake. She was afraid that when he awoke in the new surroundings, “he would have a meltdown.”

Fortunately, he didn’t. When they woke him up and several of Wolfe’s eight large dogs came into the room, “he was happy and calm. He sat on her husband Blair’s lap with one of the dogs.”

“I told them I was afraid he might bite and they assured me the dogs didn’t bite – but I told them I meant my son. I was afraid Harry would bite the dog,” she said.

Now, said Nitti, the family even gets to go to shul on Shabbat.

“The congregation embraced Emmy,” she said. The family began to bring the dog to synagogue right after the High Holy Days. Sometimes, she said, Harry will sit in the main sanctuary for an undisturbed 10 minutes.

“But that’s 10 minutes compared to zero,” said Nitti, president of the shul’s Young Couples Club.

“They couldn’t be more welcoming. Before we started bringing the dog, the rabbi held meetings about what to expect. He made it clear that we should be welcomed.”

Now, said Nitti, Emmy is like a mascot. And since the dog is so gentle, even those children who were afraid of her at first no longer are.

“I spoke about this to the congregation a few times during the first few weeks that the dog was in synagogue,” said the JCCP’s Rabbi Arthur Weiner. “Everyone was supportive and understanding.”

Weiner said he was not surprised at the congregation’s warm reaction. “Our entire synagogue community knows that we go the extra mile to make the synagogue accessible and open to all,” he said. “This is simply another way to accomplish that. Congregants know this has been a great help to both Harry and his family.”

“There has been absolutely no negative reaction,” he said. “I did speak to our religious committee about halachic issues that might be raised with having an animal in a synagogue, as well as the rulings that teach that these issues do not apply to what we call a service dog. There have been no problems.”
Weiner said not only has the dog made a difference in Harry’s life, but it has improved the quality of life for the entire family.

“Families of special-needs children are often marginalized, or feel as if they are. Yet the synagogue has always been a most important place for the Nitti family. The dog allows them a level of comfort and safety that was not available to them before. It has been good for everyone.” In an effort to “give back,” Nitti has become secretary of Merlin’s Kids, a group founded by Wolfe to provide service dogs to people who could not otherwise obtain them, whether for financial reasons or because they don’t meet all the qualifications. For example, said Nitti, a sight-impaired person may not be categorized as “legally blind,” and thus might be ineligible to get a dog from organizations that serve the blind.

Nitti points out that in addition to helping individuals with autistic spectrum disorders, service dogs can also aid with communication disorders, including apraxia, and mental illnesses such as depression, phobias, and social anxiety disorder.

“We’re the poster children for this method of obtaining and training dogs,” said Nitti.

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