Autism service dog Winter retires after a decade, opening up a world of opportunity for James

The first time James King encountered Winter the Labrador, he fell face down.

The then four-year-old didn’t know much about the family’s new dog except that he was there to help.

As an autism service dog, it was Winter’s job to pull James – via a tether connected to James’ waist – when he attempted to “lock” in public.

“So James immediately ran away, as usual, and Winter grounded himself like he was supposed to and James’ face planted on the ground,” James’ mother, Chantel King, said.

A young boy lays his head on a black Labrador lying in the backseat of a car.
Winter would wear a yellow vest in public.(Provided: Chantel King)

The instant bond between James and Winter allowed the family to properly experience family outings for the first time.

“My husband and daughter were always doing things together. James and I stayed home because James had a habit of either rushing through traffic or disappearing,” Ms King said.

The best option they found was to keep James in an adapted pram, a common tool for families, until Ms King came across a new Guide Dogs SA program offering autism assistance dogs.

At that time, however, the program was only offered in Adelaide, not in the Mount Gambier area where they live.

They set up a pilot program for the King family.

A black labrador dog wearing an orange vest sits on a wooden floor.
Ms King traveled to Adelaide to coach Winter ahead of her arrival at Mount Gambier.(Provided: Chantel King)

Ten years later, 13-year-old James and Winter are still best friends. The family has been able to go places they never thought possible.

Although still “restricted” in some way, having Winter allowed James to gain independence.

“[I] can actually get out and explore the world without parents having to worry [me] run away or run into traffic because the dog will be attached to [me] then I’ll lay down and drop anchor,” James said.

Freedom for the family

The King family were able to travel with James and Winter to Adelaide Zoo and Rundle Mall.

They even managed to catch a flight to Adelaide and then Sydney, staying in the city for a few nights.

A boy holds a small kangaroo alongside a woman and a seated black Labrador dog.
James today with his mother Chantel, Winter and a rescue kangaroo they are caring for.(Provided: Chantel King)

In addition to ensuring James’ physical safety, Winter can help his parents prepare for a crisis.

“A lot of times Winter can actually tell me ahead of time what James’s mood is, just based on how close he is to James,” Ms King said.

Having Winter with them also helped the King family feel a sense of validation.

People often stop them in stores to ask questions.

The Winter Retreat

Winter has now retired as an official orange-vest service dog, but remains a beloved pet and companion to James.

“James has expressed that he would like another dog to go out in public. And that’s definitely something we wouldn’t say no to,” Ms King said.

It may not be so simple because she does not know if they would be eligible for another dog from Guide Dogs SA.

“Just because I know they have a long, long waiting list,” Ms King said.

A young boy lies on a carpet next to a black Labrador with toy cars lined up along his chest.
It’s not all hard work for the winter.(Provided: Chantel King)

They may need to fundraise to get one privately.

“Because [Winter] was provided by Guide Dogs SA, and we met all of their criteria, we were lucky to get it for free,” she said.

“I know it costs about the same when you go private. [But] they do a fantastic job, so you get what you pay for.

“I think it should be more eligible for families who have children on the spectrum [though].”

Although James knows the benefits of having Winter, one is clear.

“Well, the child benefits are definitely a best friend for life,” James said.

“He will be there constantly to continue giving me emotional support and hugs whenever I need it.”

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