For years, Shanna Niehaus had seen her son Kai attempt to make friends — but to no avail.
So when she saw the 5-year-old boy, who has autism, cuddle up to his new service dog, she couldn’t hold it together.
“Here’s my child who has struggled with communication making a connection with so much ease,” she told InsideEdition.com. “That’s when it hit me. That’s when I got choked up.”
A photo showing Niehaus sobbing silently behind her son and his dog, named Tornado, was posted to the 4 Paws for Ability Facebook page, where it has been shared thousands of times.
It was a long journey to that moment, both emotionally and literally. Although American, the Niehaus family lives and works in Tokyo, Japan. They travelled to Xenia, Ohio, earlier this week to meet Tornado after Kai expressed an interest in having a service dog.
“There are a lot of misconceptions about autism,” Niehaus said. “Many kids on the spectrum don’t have many friends and it’s believed that these kids can’t have that connection, but that’s not the case. Kai has been searching for a really long time for that connection but he has a hard time sustaining that with people… He’s always shown better communication with dogs and any parent draws on a child’s strength.”
Before they flew to the U.S., Kai’s parents spoke to him about what he could expect from a dog.
“We’ve been talking to Kai about the process during this entire duration so it wouldn’t be scary for him,” his mom said. “There’s been a lot of anticipation. So when he met Tornado… he was so consumed with excitement that he just exploded.”
A video shared by 4 Paws shows Kai running to his new friend and throwing his arms around him.
It was very overwhelming for Kai, Niehaus said, so after the initial meeting, her husband took him and his two siblings away for a break. Hours later, he returned to his dog’s side, grabbed his iPad and snuggled up against Tornado’s furry belly.
“That’s when it was overwhelming for me,” his mom said.
Her husband snapped the photo. Despite the “embarrassment of my ugly cry face,” Niehaus decided to post it online.
“That was a moment I would really cherish,” she said. “All this effort and hard work from so many people… This really was a truly significant moment in my family’s life and in my son’s life.”
Karen Shirk, who founded 4 Paws in 1998, said she was happy to share the photo too.
“I think this shows the world the things that we see every day,” she told InsideEdition.com. “When you see a picture like that, you see the raw emotion that a family is feeling.”
In March, the non-profit trained their 1,000th dog and they’ve trained another 80 since then.
“Ninety-five percent of the dogs go to children with every disability you could ever think of… diabetic alert, seizure alert, autism. You name it, we’ve probably seen a child with that disability,” she said. “Every child is different but for a lot of the higher functioning kids, this is a typical response.”
The Niehaus family is now halfway through 12 days of training with 1-year-old Tornado.
The dog will be learning how to help with search and rescue efforts, in case Kai wanders away from the family’s home. There’ll also be obedience training and behavior disruption. “Children with autism can be prone to meltdowns if there’s a change in the environment around them,” Niehaus said. “Tornado can de-escalate that.”
Then next week, they’ll be tested before Tornado is able to graduate and fly to his home in Japan. Niehaus is overjoyed to be leaving with a new friend for her son.
“He really wanted to fill that void for a long time and Tornado walked right into that void,” she said. “Kai’s heart is so full. Having this connection is really, truly life changing.”