Naugatuck family raising funds to train dog to aid son with Down syndrome
NAUGATUCK — The doors at George and Helen Northrup’s house on Nettleton Avenue have alarms attached at the top of the door frames. When set, the alarms unleash a shrill chirping noise if a door is opened.
Such features aren’t unusual when it comes to home security, but those at the Northrups’ home aren’t necessarily meant to keep people out, rather they’re to help keep their son, Collin, in.
Collin, an 8-year-old second-grader at Maple Hill Elementary School, has Down syndrome. He loves swimming, the Irish music group Celtic Thunder, and has a tendency to run off at a moment’s notice — a common behavior for many people with Down syndrome.
“Since he can walk on his own he’s been a runner,” George said.
The majority of times Collin runs off is when he sees something down the road that looks interesting and he wants to go investigate it, Helen explained. On one occasion, Collin was found two houses down the road playing on swing set in the backyard. More recently, Collin almost made it to Rubber Avenue, where he could have run into traffic, before he was caught by a woman.
“This is all done within minutes,” Helen said. “He can get a distance like you wouldn’t believe.”
Now that Collin is older, he can push a chair or a couch over to a door to reach the alarms to turn them off. Collin wears a tracking device on his pants that he can’t remove, but if he changes his pants — as was the case when he almost made it to Rubber Avenue — the device is useless.
“Here we thought we solved the issue, then he showed us a new way that he could get away without us realizing it,” Helen said.
The Northrups are hopeful that they have found a new, more reliable solution. Her name is Lady, a 13-week-old English Mastiff.
Lady was playing with Collin and his siblings in the living room like any normal puppy would last week. The hope is that in nine to 12 months Lady will be much more than a normal puppy, she will be Collin’s service dog.
The Northrups tried a service dog two years ago, but the dog had to be put down due to a medical condition, they said. With the recommendation and support of their pediatrician, Dr. Jeffrey Berg, and the state Department of Children and Families, they decided to give it another try.
So, the Northrups took a ride up to Fort Ann, N.Y. early in September to pick out a dog. Little did they know Lady would pick Collin.
There were about 10 dogs in the room when the Northrups walked in, George recalled. Collin got a little overwhelmed and retreated to a chair in the corner, he said.
“[Lady] came up, smelled him, jumped in his lap and she would not leave him,” George said. “We had hoped that was going to happen, actually.”
The Northrups are working with Neil Hutchins Resto, a certified dog training instructor, to train Lady. For now, they are working on basic puppy training, Helen said. When Lady is about 4 months old, the training will intensify through various stages, she said.
Once the training is complete, Lady will be tethered to Collin when they are outside and trained to sit down and bark if Collin tries to run, Helen explained. Lady will also sleep with Collin and be taught to bark if gets out of bed in the middle of the night — Collin is known to get up in the middle of the night, shower and sit on the front porch to wait for the school bus — as part of her training.
“We still don’t have all the answers,” Helen said. “I don’t think we’ll ever have all the answers to how to keep him safe. I’m sure this is a major step and this will help us, but it’s a costly feature.”
The cost of the training, which isn’t covered by health insurance, is about $15,000, said Helen, who added Resto is giving the couple a little break in exchange for using Collin and Lady in promotional materials.
The Northrups have started a YouCaring page, which can be found at www.youcaring.com by searching for “Collin Northrup” in the search tab, to help raise funds to cover the training. As of last week, $920 had been raised, according to Helen.
The family also plans to sell bracelets in October, which is national Down Syndrome Awareness Month.
While Lady’s training has just begun, the impact she’s had on Collin in just a few weeks is noticeable.
Helen said Collin’s speech had vastly improved and he wants to talk more. In the past, she continued, Collin would grow frustrated when people didn’t understand him. Also, Helen said, Lady helps soothe Collin. If he gets upset now, she said, he’ll go sit and pet her instead of lashing out.
“Our biggest goal is for Collin to have as much independence in life and be able to set his own goals and his own dreams, but also to learn trades, something he wants to do,” Helen said. “He has the right to have any type of goals that he wants to do. And, if we keep him locked behind alarms and door locks and limit him from exposure outside, just being a normal kid, he’s never going to be able to set goals.”