By Sonya Campbell
Killeen Daily Herald
BELTON - Michelle Austin remembers the day her son, Cole, disappeared. They were Christmas shopping at the time, at a Barnes and Noble out of state.
One minute her son was standing beside her looking at dinosaurs, the next he was gone.
Making the situation worse, Cole is autistic and couldn't do anything to help himself - not even respond to his name being called.
Michelle notified the store about her son's disappearance, and a "Code Adam" alert was initiated.
The doors were locked and the employees moved to designated locations, where they began scouring the isles, she said.
As Michelle grew more concerned, her mind scrolled through the scenarios that could play out.
She knew Cole might have bolted out of the store before the doors were locked.
"He was already a runner. He knows where the doors are all the time," she said.
She thought he might have headed for traffic. Then her fears turned even darker.
"I realized there were more perils than getting hit by a car," Michelle said.
Until that moment, the thought of how helpless her child would be against a predator hadn't crossed her mind.
"There would be no way to recover him," she said, considering herself fortunate that he was found running and laughing in the aisles.
She said he was running from people who were determined to catch him.
While they were serious about their efforts, Cole thought it was all a game.
It was that entire scenario that inspired Michelle to get a service dog - one that was trained to perform specific tasks based on Cole's disability.
Specifically, the dog would help keep her son from wandering or running off and could track him if he managed to do so.
Answer to prayer
Zeke, a border collie-Labrador mix, was the answer to her prayers.
Michelle said the dog was purchased through All Purpose Canines, a nonprofit organization based in South Dakota.
He was about a year old when the family got him - the same amount of time it took Michelle to collect the money to pay for him. Cole was 5.
"Fifteen thousand (dollars) seems astronomical, but it's not. He has saved Cole's life. Even if he just saved his life once, it was worth it," Michelle said, acknowledging her insurance didn't cover any of the cost.
She said the first week after getting Zeke they went to the beach. Cole tried to dart into traffic and Zeke stopped him.
Michelle said the dog is trained to stand still or lay down when her son pulls at the strap that binds them together.
"He (Zeke) knows to go against that motion," she said.
Another time, Cole managed to get out of the house and walk down the street to the next home.
Zeke led Michelle to him.
He has also helped boost Cole's physical condition and his social skills.
The pair is together all day, everyday, Michelle said.
That means Cole has do a lot more walking. Before getting Zeke, he rode in a stroller for children with disabilities to ensure he wouldn't run off.
Walking with Zeke has helped to improve Cole's muscle coordination, she said, and aided in his interaction with other people.
The dog tends to attract the curious.
That's good because it helps Cole interact with others - something autistic children have difficulty doing.
She said a dog tends to lure people more easily than "a boy who makes weird noises."
But attracting attention can also be bad when dog lovers want to pet Zeke.
"There is service dog etiquette. You don't walk up and touch someone's crutches. Don't walk up and touch a service dog so they can maintain focus on their work," Michelle said.
She also noted there are still people who don't realize federal law permits anyone with a service dog to have access to public places.
On one occasion, she said, a convenience store employee refused to sell her coffee because he didn't want Zeke in the store - even after a cup had already been poured.
The dog's presence, however, has helped in other instances.
Michelle said people no longer look at her son, see how he acts and think he's a naughty boy in need of spanking.
Instead, they see a child with a disability accompanied by his service dog.
"Together they make a great team," Michelle said.
Contact Sonya Campbell at firstname.lastname@example.org or (254) 501-7585.