New to Gretna Middle School this year, Charlie is quite the nontraditional sixth grader.

She walks on all fours and wears a vest each day. The three-year-old yellow English Labrador retriever accompanies best friend Cade Bryson through hallways and classrooms daily at GMS.

The Bryson family adopted Charlie when she was 18 months old, fresh out of training from Good Dog! Autism Companions. The family had contacted the organization and was placed on a wait list, collecting donations through social media and military friends and family to raise the $13,000 required to bring Charlie home.

Since 2011, the California-based nonprofit has worked to pair families with service dogs specialized in working with children wtih autism.

Charlie provides a number of services to Cade, including sensory input and nudging him to help redirect his focus.

“She helps me with nudging and deep pressure,” Cade said.

Instead of wearing a weighted vest, Charlie can lay on Cade to help him calm down or fall asleep.

“He’s a lot more confident with her around,” said Amanda Bryson, Cade’s mother. “She’s his security blanket and they travel as a pair.”

Since the 13-year-old has had Charlie, he has been more social and willing to participate in class. Taking Charlie to and from class also makes Cade more responsible.

Bryson said that recognizing Charlie also brings more acceptance in public. While people might not understand Cade’s autism, seeing him with Charlie makes the curious more accepting, social and willing to learn.

“I think Charlie has made the biggest difference,” Bryson said. “Even going places as a family, people are a lot more compassionate when they see them together.”

Bryson visited with GMS students and staff at the beginning of the school year, offering insight on service dogs and how to interact with them.

When Charlie’s vest is on, she should not be approached or talked to, as this might distract her from her job. Those who approach the dog should speak to the handler, who may then initiate contact with the dog.

“Taking her attention away from him might make her miss something she needs to pay attention to,” Bryson said.

Though autism service dogs are a newer concept, Bryson said Charlie has been a great resource, particularly in the school environment.

“I think the kids have really done a phenomenal job,” Bryson said. “The schools have been great about integration and letting me come and talk to the kids.”

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