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Canine Companion program provides a boost to those in need

| Wednesday, April 24, 2013, 9:03 p.m.
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Maria Sossi, Kevin Sossi and canine companion Gaius became a family in 2009, when Canine Companions for Independence, based out of Santa Rosa, Calif., paired Kevin with Gaius after going through a detailed screening process.

One of the hopes at Canine Companions for Independence is that man's best friend not be man's only friend.

This has certainly been the case for Kevin Sossi, 13, a Bridgeville resident who suffers from Asperger's syndrome, which is a condition on the milder end of the autism spectrum that can cause difficulty in social relationships.

Kevin's mother, Maria Sossi, said when her son comes home from school, Gaius, their healthy black Labrador retriever, is always there to help “center him after a pretty taxing day at school” and ease the stress of being around so many people all day.

Canine Companions for Independence, based out of Santa Rosa, Calif., paired Kevin with Gaius in 2009 after going through a detailed screening process, which includes a week's worth of activities to help train the new owners and find them potential matches based on mutual chemistry between the dog and handler.

After watching the interactions for three or four days, CCI representatives pick out 10 dogs that they think are a good match, three of which are then picked by the potential new owners as their top choices.

Gaius didn't make the top three for the Sossis but ended up being a flawless match chosen by CCI trainers at their north central region center in Ohio.

“They were dead on because he's perfect for our son,” Sossi said.

The organization then keeps close tabs on the owners via email and phone calls to make sure that the transition is going smoothly for both parties and that the handlers are getting what they need from the time they receive the dog until it retires eight to 10 years later.

“We don't just place the dog and say ‘good luck',” said Ashley Koehler, the development associate for CCI.

Some dogs are used for different purposes depending on the needs of the recipient. Certain dogs are trained to help those that are physically disabled move around the home while others are used to provide much-needed emotional support, but all of them are used to provide a conversation piece and encourage social interaction.

The command that Kevin and his mother use the most to help “calm and relax” is called “lap”.

“What that means is Gaius will … almost literally sit on top of him,” Sossi said, which produces a deep pressure stimulation that has been proven to help calm those who suffer from Asperger's syndrome.

Since the two have become such close friends, Gaius has learned to help instinctively.

“They've been together for so long, he'll know or sense when Kevin is a little stressed out so he'll run to his aid,” Sossi said.

When Kevin was assigned to write a poem for his English class using vocabulary words he learned, he chose to write his poem about Gaius.

“There is a very, very strong bond,” Sossi said.

Their playful pal has been helpful in the home, at school and also outside to help introduce Kevin to new people, his mother said, and the success has been very evident after seeing the strides forward that have been made.

“He's an honor student,” she said. “He's progressing very well socially.”

“It's really just amazing to see the transformation,” Koehler said, having been able to see many people paired with their companions. “They don't even know exactly how that dog is going to change their lives.”

Gaius' warm presence has made such a huge impact on Kevin's life and has “actually changed the quality of life” for their family, Sossi said.

Matthew DeFusco is a staff writer with Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-871-2311 or mdefusco@tribweb.com.

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