Weathering the storm of autism: How a service dog changed the lives of one Unalakleet family

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UNALAKLEET, Alaska (KTUU) - On a warm summer day in July, 16-year old Logan Erickson watches TV in his room while his dog Juke lays quietly about 15-feet away in the living room, soaking up the sun shining through the back window. Nothing about this scene might strike you as strange. That’s because you don’t know Logan and Juke, and what their lives have been like since they first met in 2010.

For the most part, Logan Erickson is a typical teenager, he loves reading, basketball, watching movies and riding almost anything that goes fast. But unlike most, Logan can’t speak or hold a pencil and he still wears a diaper. That’s because Logan suffers from severe autism.

For seven years, between the ages of 2 and 9, Logan's life spiraled out of control, according to his mother Donna Erickson.

“I can honestly say there are times that I would think we were living in a living hell when Logan was diagnosed with severe autism,” said Donna Erickson. "Life was really hard. You feel isolated. You feel alone. People don't know how to help because your kid is out of control and you don't know how to control them."

This is where Juke comes into play. In 2009, when a severe storm hit Unalakleet. During that storm, Logan was surprisingly calm, comforted by the presence of a sled dog belonging to legendary musher Dee Dee Jonrowe. It was then Dee Dee and Donna realized a dog could be the key to calming Logan’s autism. With the help of Iditarod, the Erickson’s received $15,000 to help cover the cost of getting Logan a service dog.

"I didn't expect it,” Donna Erickson said. “When we first got Juke, I was kind of leery, I didn't think it would be as good as it was going to be."

When Logan and Juke first met in Ohio, the two didn’t click right away, but friendships have a way of growing over time. The two quickly became inseparable.

“It’s the only best friend that Logan's ever had,” said Jeff Erickson, Logan’s father. "They were as close as any friends for four years, Logan always being the bossy friend. He would decide when he needed some time alone and push him out the door, but Juke being one of those friends everybody wishes they had. You can treat me how you want to treat me and I'll still love you as much the next day."

For several years, the pair slept together, ate together and went to school together. Juke is also a trained search and rescue dog, and helped to keep Logan off thinning ice in their home town of Unalakleet,. He was able to find Logan every time he ran off, which was common.

As for Donna and Jeff, Juke had just as big of an impact on their lives, essentially sharing the duties of parenting while also relieving the constant pressure and stress of raising a child with severe autism.

“At night we could sleep because we knew he had somebody and Juke would come in and wake us if something was not good,” said Jeff. “So as much as it changed Logan's life, I think it changed our life just as much."

"He allowed us to sleep, and he just took the pressure off of me,” said Donna. “I was in the hyper-vigilant, almost in a nervous state for years and Juke just took the pressure off of me."

But sadly, not all love lasts.

Last year the Ericksons noticed Juke was limping, only to discover he suffered from hip dysplasia, a genetic disorder that veterinarians with 4 Paws for Ability should have caught when Juke was a puppy. Instead, at age 6, surgery was required to repair an ACL.

"It was missed," said Jeff Erickson. "Talking to the vet when he really developed a severe limp and the vet said he had a torn cruciate ligament in his back leg. At that point after he had done X-rays and an MRI on him, he could see, he said 'I can't believe they missed it,' because you should be able to see this much of a hip dysplasia or potential for a hip dysplasia developing in the dog, you should be able to see it as a puppy, and 4 Paws is really diligent as they check litters, from what we've heard, they'll eliminate an entire litter if they find a single dog with a severe propensity to hip dysplasia and hip problems."

But according to Karen Shirk with 4 Paws For Ability, she says Juke was fine as a puppy.

"Hip dysplasia is not diagnosable as a puppy," said Shirk. "They won't even X-ray for it until 2 years of age. Juke was placed at a year old and was perfectly healthy. If it is something we should have seen why is it that the vet didn't see it for 6 years? Because Juke did not present like a dog with hip dysplasia."

Juke could no longer run, pull Logan with a harness or jump on the bed to sleep with him. Although he tried, Juke’s body would no longer cooperate.

These circumstances tested the limits of friendship between Juke and Logan. Upon the dog's return to Unalakleet following surgery, Logan rejected his one true friend, for reasons nobody knows.

"He has been mad at his dog and he quit being his friend,” Donna said. “He doesn't allow him in his room, and Juke is so devoted to him, he sleeps in his doorway, he's always checking on him, following him around."

Donna and Jeff say it’s been that way for about a year, and while the family would love to have Juke stay and live out his days as a family pet, they feel it’s best he live somewhere where he doesn’t feel like he has to work, and isn’t constantly walking up stairs to get around the house.

"He took care of Logan all the time and he understands my frustration,” said Donna. “He would just love me like he would love Logan and it would just take a weight off my shoulder that I had a friend that understands and that we were in it together and he was a really good service dog."

On July 22, Donna, Jeff, Logan and Juke will make the trip to Willow, where Juke will live out his days in retirement with Iditarod legend DeeDee Jonrowe.

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