July 28, 2005

Operation Red Fern

Someone once said that when your child is diagnosed with autism, you begin to meet a better class of people.

Extra mile for boy's best friends
Cross-country relay will keep them together

Friday, July 29, 2005
By Jacqueline Shoyeb, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The volunteers call the cross-country trip a doggie relay. The Kuehn family calls it a godsend.

For two Labrador retrievers, Trikzy and Daisy, and 12-year-old owner, Joshua, it's their lucky break.

Joshua, who is autistic and is calmed by the animals, was faced with the possibility he might have to give up the dogs for adoption after airlines told his parents it would be too hot in the cargo hold to fly the dogs to the family's new home in Phoenix.

So the Kuehns reluctantly put the dogs up for adoption, posting an e-mail on AutismLink, a Web site that provides information and support for families with autistic children.

But the response they got was not what they expected. A woman from Du Bois in Clearfield County told them, Your dogs are coming with you.

And so this morning, Trikzy and Daisy will begin the first leg of a three-part trip involving volunteers from two states who will eventually take the pair to their new home in what they call a doggie relay.

"When I heard the news I lost it," said dad Jeffrey Kuehn, a security guard from McDonald. "Strangers are doing this and that's what's amazing about it."

The effort is especially important to Joshua, who is diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, an autism disorder that limits his communication and social skills.

"They help through the battles and through with making friends and everything," Joshua said. "They're the only ones I can really talk to."

The dogs comfort him, said his mother, Kathleen.

"It was a godsend because I don't think my son would go without them," she sad.

The idea for the dog relay began last week when Jenny Webster, of Du Bois, saw the Kuehn's e-mail seeking an adoptive family for the two dogs on AutismLink.

The family was relocating to Phoenix for better jobs and warmer weather, and couldn't bring the dogs with them. After the airlines turned them down, the family found out that a professional pet transporter would charge them $1,400, an amount they couldn't afford.

"He wasn't going to have his dogs, his best friends," said Webster.

"I have an autistic child and I know how attached he can be to things and people and animals. If I were in that situation I would have hoped someone could help me out."

Touched by their story, Webster sprang into action, sending out e-mails asking for volunteer drivers to help the cause.

In a few days, people from across the nation were responding with donations from $5 to $200 and a few offers to drive.

Through the AutsimLink Web site, Webster, a stay-at-home mom, secured two drivers and $800 for gas.

"This has been fast," she said.

"But I'm up for it. It's going to be fun."

Two others up for it are Jenn Engle of Albuquerque, N.M., and Swissvale resident Lenore Wossidlo.

The plan, which was ironed out yesterday goes like this:

Wossidlo picks up the dogs in McDonald today and will meet Webster at the intersection of Interstates 79 and 80 in Mercer County.

In the second pass-off, Webster will take the dogs about 1,500 miles to a restaurant in Elk City, Okla., which is about 100 miles west of Oklahoma City.

Engle will then pick up the dogs and head another 550 miles to Albuquerque, where Jeffrey Kuehn will be waiting to take the dogs the rest of the way to Phoenix.

None of the volunteers have met Joshua, but they all say they couldn't let him be separated from his longtime pets.

"This is a boy with autism who is moving across country to a new school, new friends, new neighbors," said Wossidlo, who also has an autistic son.

The disability makes even simple changes like driving a different way to the store confusing and upsetting, said Dr. Nancy Minshew, a psychiatry and neurology professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

"Other kids may be excited about getting a new room, new bedspread and more, but this is the kind of kid who will probably want everything to be the same," she said.

In Joshua's case, the dogs help calm him when things do change, said his mother, Kathleen.

Trikzy, a black lab, was Joshua's a birthday gift six years ago. Daisy was rescued from an abusive home two years ago. Both dogs are close to him, but 68-pound Daisy is extremely attached, she said.

"The yellow lab sleeps with him and tells him what time to go to bed," she said.
"When he goes to school, she cries. Those two are so attached it's unreal."

For Wossidlo, who also is involved in autism awareness efforts, the doggie relay is more than strangers driving two dogs 2,100 miles across the country. It's a show of compassion, she said, for an autistic boy and his dogs.

"And it all started a week and a half ago," she said, "with one e-mail saying, Can you take my dog?"

(Jacqueline Shoyeb can be reached at jshoyeb@post-gazette.com or

If you don't click this link and contribute $5 to the effort, then you have no soul.

You can keep up with the doggie relay over the weekend here.

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