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When Rosa Belem Ochoa’s family was rushing to evacuate their Medford home during the Almeda fire in 2020, she wasn’t sure if her son, Julian, would willingly come along.

Julian, then 10, who has been diagnosed with autism, does best in calm environments, following a routine. He’ll stop at the front door if it’s raining, said Ochoa, adding, “he does not like change.”

One big change to the family made it possible for the Ochoas to flee: A cream-colored Labrador named Vanilla that had been coached to protect, guide and comfort Julian.

Vanilla was given to the family by Dogs for Better Lives, a national organization founded 46 years ago as Dogs for the Deaf by the late Roy G. Kabat, who lived in southern Oregon.

The nonprofit, which is based in Central Point, began pairing clients with hearing assistance dogs trained to alert them to alarms at home, work and in public places. The mission has since expanded to autism assistance dogs for children and facility dogs for places like classrooms.

Every dollar raised for Dogs for Better Lives, a beneficiary of The Oregonian/OregonLive’s 2022 Season of Sharing holiday fundraising campaign, is spent on programmatic services.

> Donate to Dogs for Better Lives or the Season of Sharing general fund

“It’s a significant cost to train a single service dog but we provide a dog free of charge because we don’t want to create an additional financial burden for someone who has a disability,” said CEO Bryan Williams.

The last phase of the extensive training is a weeklong orientation of the dog at the client’s home.

The organization, which has 44 employees and 145 volunteers, has acquired, trained and placed more than 1,600 dogs since 1977. This year, a second facility opened in Falmouth, Massachusetts. Satellite locations are in California, Washington state and New Hampshire.

The 2022 budget is $4.1 million. All revenue is from private donations from individuals, foundations, business and community groups. Administrative and fundraising expenses are paid through the nonprofit’s endowment.

The rescue dogs, from a seven-pound Maltese mix to a 70-pound German Shepherd, must pass strict tests to show they are healthy, have the temperament to be loving and protective, and the focus to stay alert and not be distracted.

The clients pay for food and routine vaccines, while Dogs for Better Lives agrees to provide major medical services if ever needed.

“The last thing we want is for someone to experience the life-changing benefits of receiving a service dog and then have the dog taken away because they can’t afford surgery,” said Williams.

Rosa Belem Ochoa heard about Dogs for Better Lives through her autism community.

In the mornings, Vanilla stands by as Julian goes through a series of exercises like crossing his arms across his chest and patting his shoulders. The comforting therapy is called the butterfly hug.

When Julian lies on the carpet, face down, Vanilla rests her head on Julian’s back, adding weight. The “squish” command is given when Julian feels deep pressure from Vanilla’s whole body.

Certified trainer Laura Encinas said Vanilla was also taught specific tasks such as “visit” (head on lap), “settle” (lie prone on the floor for Julian to snuggle her) and “anchoring,” when the dog, feeling pressure on leash, will sit to stop a child from running away.

Rosa Belem Ochoa said Dogs for Better Lives’ staff made it easy for her to complete the application, even though English is her second language.

“The program welcomes all families,” she said.

What does Julian think of Vanilla? “She’s a good doggy,” he said, smiling, as Vanilla looked up, wagging her tail. “She’s my friend.”

What your donation can do

$50: Supplies one dog in training premium dog food for a month

$100: Provides initial vaccinations and microchip for one dog in training

$150: Buys a five-month supply of Heartworm preventative for one dog in training

— Janet Eastman | 503-294-4072 | @janeteastman

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