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Service dog visit provides autism lesson to South Allegheny middle schoolers

Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News
Jennifer Ohnhaus of Lincoln introduces her son's autism service dog Damon to a group of South Allegheny Middle School students.

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By Jennifer R. Vertullo
Saturday, Oct. 12, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Jennifer Ohnhaus of Lincoln visited a South Allegheny Middle School classroom on Friday to introduce students to Damon, an autism service dog for her 8-year-old son, Lance.

With much recognition given in October to breast cancer or domestic violence awareness, district public relations coordinator Laura Thomson asked students in Stacey Ghetian's character education class to turn their attention to those with disabilities.

In addition to other commemorative months, October is National Disability Awareness Month.

“We invited Mrs. Ohnhaus in to talk to you because more and more we are seeing animals assisting people with disabilities,” Thomson said.

While many people are familiar with seeing-eye dogs that aid the visually impaired, service dogs meet a variety of needs for children and adults with physical or mental disabilities.

The Ohnhaus family received their dog from K-9s for Kids through an Autism Center of Pittsburgh grant funded by District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr.'s office. Lance is a student of an autism program in Dormont.

“Damon came from a whole litter of puppies that were bred to be service dogs,” Ohnhaus explained.

K-9s for Kids trains service dogs for children with behavioral disorders and alert dogs for children with diabetes and seizure disorders. Ohnhaus and Lance — with help from Lance's older brother Christian, a South Allegheny Middle School student — trained with K-9s for Kids for a full year to earn obedience and service certification.

“Damon is a good dog,” Ohnhaus said. “My son has trouble making friends and talking ... It's hard at parks and other places because he doesn't know how to say, ‘Will you play with me?'”

Ohnhaus said the service dog has helped Lance socially because it allows him to make a connection in otherwise difficult scenarios. A changed child since the dog became part of the Ohnhaus family, Lance now shows affection to the dog he initially was afraid to approach.

Students said they were interested to learn that service dogs are helpful companions for individuals with special needs.

“I learned that service dogs can be as close as your neighbors,” eighth-grader A.J. Yarborough said. “This isn't something you just see on TV or far away.”

Jennifer R. Vertullo is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1956, or

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