- Associated Press - Saturday, August 30, 2014

SANDWICH, Mass. (AP) - The trip to the shopping mall during a training session sealed the deal between the boy and his dog.

The sporting goods store was bright and crowded with racks of clothing. Zachary quickly became overwhelmed and melted down, a common occurrence during rare public trips.

Enter Leno, a lovable golden retriever/Lab mix, and within moments of putting his head across Zach’s lap, his soft blond fur nestled close, the meltdown ended, Zach was calmed, and Frank and Laura Fiorillo, Zach’s parents, had an “aha” moment.

“At that point, we knew, this was so worth it,” Laura Fiorillo said.

Leno is a service dog the family had trained through 4 Paws for Ability, an Ohio-based breeder that teaches dogs to assist people with all types of special needs. In Zach’s case, he has autism and is prone to public outbursts like the one in the mall and to wandering off.

Leno is trained to calm Zach, 6, based on commands and to find the boy by tracking his scent should Zach stray. The family returned from Ohio earlier this month, after two weeks of intense training where they met Leno for the first time and were drilled on the commands necessary to keep the service dog on his game.

During the daily sessions, Zach would actually hide with other people from the program and either Laura or Frank Fiorillo would give Leno the command they hope to never have to give him at home, “Find your boy.” Each time, Leno would track his young charge like he was playing a game of hide and seek, which he always won. At the end of each session was Leno’s tasty reward.

In the spring of 2013, the Fiorillos started a public campaign to raise the $13,000 they committed to 4 Paws for the dog’s training. After a story appeared in the Cape Cod Times last summer, the family was flooded with donations from individuals, Cape restaurants and even strangers.

“One woman overheard me in a store asking for a donation for a raffle,” Fiorillo recalled. “She was from New Jersey, but said she had read about our story in the paper. She wrote a $300 check right there.”

The family is touched by the community’s generosity. “Words can’t express how grateful we are,” she said.

Leno, at 65 pounds, is as calm as a lake at dawn. He plods around the family’s Moon Compass Lane house, following Laura, mostly, and waiting for the treats that drive his particular skill set. He barks only on command and unlike most lovable Labs, doesn’t pounce on every guest who arrives at the door.

The bond between Zach and Leno is slowly emerging. Zach loves to hear Leno bark, though he covers his ears. “I know there is going to be a strong bond between them,” Fiorillo said. “It’s a work in progress. He’s not a robot. He’s definitely a dog. But he’ll definitely be Zach’s best friend. I can feel it.”

On walks, Zach is tethered to Leno by a special harness, and carries his own leash while Laura holds the one that controls the dog.

“Do you love Leno?” Laura asks Zach.

“Yes!” he exclaims, before bouncing off to another room to ride a swing.

Story Continues →