Dylan Gordon, 10, has autism. When he becomes anxious, his dog, Rader, comforts him by acting as the boy’s weighted blanket. In stores, in parks, or on family outings, Rader stays by Dylan’s side, his steady presence keeping the fifth grader calm. In the car, Dylan self-soothes by taking off his shoes and rubbing his feet on Rader’s soft, brown fur.
But Rader is more than just a service dog. The chocolate lab is also Dylan’s best friend and a bridge that has helped the boy connect with the world.
The symptoms of Dylan’s autism — he is nonverbal, for example — “kept him kind of independent from his family,” said Kristina Conrad, program coordinator for Lancaster-based UDS Service Dogs, which trained Rader and oversaw his placement with Dylan. “But Rader has changed the way he interacts with them. Rader has brought them together.”
Jaime Gordon — mother of Dylan and his siblings, Nico, 12, and Jemma, 6 — once heard dogs described as “furry balls of Prozac.” That makes sense to her because she sees how often Rader’s placid demeanor helps balance the routine chaos of her household: Although Dylan does not speak, he often makes loud noises and jerky hand movements. Jemma is likely to enter a room with a cartwheel. Nico, who loves soccer, always seems to have a ball at his feet.
“We all love Rader,” said Gordon, a single mom (she is in the midst of a divorce). The chilled-out pup “brings a little bit of something to everyone in the family.”
But he is unquestionably Dylan’s dog. Dylan feeds and brushes Rader. He rests his iPad on Rader’s body while playing games. And he’s learning to use an adaptive speech device to give Rader commands (the dog already knows how to fetch Dylan’s clothes and help tug them into place).
“Kids with autism don’t really have friends unless they’re siblings or family,” Gordon said. “Rader has his eyes on Dylan at all times. He’s a first-class friend.”
Doctors determined Dylan was on the autism spectrum when he was 18 months old. Gordon, who was a lawyer with the Philadelphia-based firm Margolis Edelstein, immediately filled the boy’s days with therapies, including speech and physical treatments.
“When children have autism, it’s a race for time,” said Gordon, who quit her office job to manage Dylan’s care. She now does freelance legal work.
When Dylan turned 6 and became eligible for a UDS service dog, Gordon put him on its waiting list. About 85% of UDS’s dog trainees are Labrador retrievers, but other breeds — including Labradoodles and standard poodles — have successfully completed the program.
UDS purchases puppies from trusted breeders — the organization requires health testing going back several generations for every dog — then puts them through a training regimen that includes a 10-month stint in prison. There, specially chosen inmates begin basic obedience drills that are built upon once the dogs return to the UDS kennel in Lancaster.
It costs about $25,000 to train one dog. UDS and its sponsors can cover most of the costs, but the recipient family is usually asked to raise about $5,000. Rader and Dylan were brought together thanks, in part, to a partnership between the Central Pennsylvania chapter of Porsche Club of America and Eyal’s Flowers, a nonprofit founded in honor of Eyal Sherman, who spent most of his life as a quadriplegic reliant on a ventilator before he died in 2017 at age 36.
Eyal’s father, Rabbi Charles Sherman, said he knows well how one child’s struggles affect an entire family, and he hoped Radar could provide everyone in the Gordon family some respite.
“This certainly doesn’t erase all of [Dylan’s] challenges. But in speaking to Jaime, it seems now that there are moments when she can sit back,” said Sherman, who leads the congregation at Melrose B’nai Israel Emanu-El, a temple in Elkins Park. “This dog helps create some normalcy. It takes the extraordinary and makes it more ordinary.”
Dylan spent about four years on UDS Service Dog’s waiting list before Rader came into his life. The boy had gone to a few UDS “meet and greets,” in which clients get to know different UDS dogs, but no canine clicked with him. Until Rader.
“He just stuck by Dylan’s side and didn’t take his eyes off of him,” said UDS’s Conrad. “It was interesting to see how attentive he was, even though Dylan wasn’t really into him.”
Once UDS determined Rader and Dylan were a good fit, Jaime Gordon traveled to and from her Bala Cynwyd home to Lancaster for handler training. (“I also had to keep working, so it took a while,” she said.) Then Rader spent extended visits in the Gordon home, including overnights. He became a permanent member of the family in November 2018 after passing his National Service Animal Registry public access test.
The dog came with his name. He’d been dubbed “Rader” by Porsche, the sponsoring car club. The name can translate to “wheels” in German.
“It’s so appropriate because I think of Rader as Dylan’s wheels,” said Gordon. “He helps him go.”