A boy and his (service) dog

— Photo from Laura Assaf

Will Gibney and his dog, Toshi, rest after a long day during their initial two-week training period together.

GUILDERLAND — Will Gibney, a seventh-grader at Farnsworth Middle School, recently got a new dog. But Toshi is not just any dog.

The two-year-old yellow Labrador-golden retriever mix came to Will already knowing 40 commands. He is a service dog who helps 12-year-old Will manage his twin diagnoses, of immunodeficiency and pediatric acute-onset neuropsychiatric syndrome, known as PANS.

Will’s mother, Laura Assaf said that having Toshi has been “life-changing” for Will and for the whole family.

Assaf, a licensed psychologist with Capital Psychology in Guilderland, explained that Will has a low level of immunoglobulins — a type of protein — in his blood, and this means he has fewer antibodies than he should, and less ability to fight germs and infections.

PANS, she said, is a relatively little-known autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorder in which any infection, whether viral or bacterial, can cross the blood-brain barrier and cause what look like psychiatric symptoms, such as tics, anxiety, compulsions, sensory or motor abnormalities, regression in behavior and academic performance, and disturbance of sleep. For children with PANS, she said, both the symptoms and the underlying medical cause both need to be treated.

Her son is doing “so much better” since getting Toshi in August, Assaf said. His symptoms have been reduced, which in turn has meant fewer medications for symptom control.

Will told The Enterprise that the dog helps him “be calmer and more responsible and sleep better.” He takes care of all of Toshi’s needs: he feeds, walks, and grooms him himself, he said.  

The dog knows 40 commands, including “Go to Will,” as well as “get” and “give.”

Toshi does not accompany Will to school, but can go with him anywhere as long as Assaf, who is currently the pair’s certified facilitator, is present. By the time Will is 18, Assaf said, he should be able to qualify as his own facilitator and be free to take Toshi everywhere.

The dog is “an amazing creature,” Assaf says; he is so consistent that the family can take him anywhere without ever having any problem.

Will is an active child, Assaf said. His favorite thing to do is draw, she said. He studies tae kwon do, plays percussion in the FMS school band, and is in the YMCA travel basketball program.

Toshi came to Will through the Canine Companions for Independence program, a nationwide not-for-profit group that Assaf knew of from having written recommendations previously for two children with autism in their applications to receive CCI dogs. When she contacted CCI about Will, the organization had never heard of PANS; Will became the first child with the condition to receive a dog.

Dogs are first raised and trained within a foster family for 18 months and then sent to an advanced training course for six to nine months. Then, before the dog is released to the new owner, the two of them attend an intensive two-week training session together. Assaf attended with Will, as his adult facilitator, and said that it was like a retreat, and wonderful to be able to concentrate — without having to worry about any other daily concerns — on building the bonds between all three of them, and mostly between Will and Toshi.

Assaf said that, in addition to financial donations, one way that her family plans to give back to Canine Companions is by training puppies. After having a dog in the family for one year, they will be eligible to receive a puppy to train, and Will’s younger brother Danny, now a fifth-grader at Lynnwood Elementary, is looking forward to being able to step up, to take responsibility for raising a puppy that will help someone else in the future.

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