'Beautiful relationship': Girl with autism finds comfort in new companion dog
'Emmi calms right down. Her whole demeanour changes. It's just amazing'
Emmi Tegart lay on her back in a wagon pulled by her parents, face buried in blankets.
She had headphones on because she hates loud noises, a symptom of her Down Syndrome and autism.
Then a slobbery kiss from a rescue dog named Little Bear changed everything.
The instant expression of joy on her 11-year-old daughter's face was something Sheri Tegart had never seen before.
"I teared up, because of the huge smile on Emmi's face, and the focus," Tegart said. "You don't see that with Emmi, very much. The initial interaction was just neat to see."
"She was just happy and excited to play. It was moving."
'We prayed about it for a long time'
To Tegart, that first meeting between her daughter and the dog that would become her constant companion felt like fate.
The Spruce Grove girl is non-verbal and often grows frustrated in social interactions. Her parents struggle to help her overcome anxieties.
"We always felt like a therapy dog would be an amazing way to help Emmi stay calm and focused," said Tegart.
"She really has a lot of issues with being dysregulated, anxiety and OCD, and anything can trigger it — loud noises, very busy environments. School is a challenge with her."
The family had been searching for a service animal long before Emmi started attending school. They were prepared to file an application four years ago, but with another baby on the way, the timing wasn't right.
They decided to hold off, not realizing that some families can wait up to five years for a certified service dog. By the time they revisited the idea, many agencies were overwhelmed with demand and no longer accepting applications, Tegart said.
"We felt like we had missed this amazing opportunity."
'We're feeling blessed'
Despite their daughter's anxiety with crowds, they took her to the Edmonton Pet Expo, an annual trade show that showcases animal welfare agencies from across the province.
They felt drawn to the booth run by Infinite Woofs Animal Rescue Society. That's where they first encountered Little Bear.
Emmi had met other dogs before. But this was different. She got up from her wagon, smiled, fed the dog treats and squealed with laughter.
In that moment, they decided to adopt Little Bear, a seven-month-old stray found running loose on a northern Alberta reserve last summer.
A volunteer was moved by their story, so the agency decided to cover the family's adoption fees. Another person who had applied to take the dog home cancelled out, to speed up the process.
"We're feeling blessed and kind of in awe, and part of something bigger," said Tegart.
"It's just been amazing. We're just so thankful."
'It's like Bear has this intuition'
The connection between the little girl and her dog is something IWARS volunteer Niki Perrin will always remember.
"Seeing the impact Bear has on Emmi, the play, the focus, and most importantly the huge smiles, is truly incredible," Perrin said. "I feel so blessed to be a part of bringing these two together."
As the animal rescue agency's dog foster manager, Perrin has overseen hundreds of successful adoptions.
"Bear actually pulled me up to the house and Emmi couldn't stop smiling and snuggling her," Perrin said.
"I always cry. But this time it wasn't at the thought of missing her, but at the beautiful new relationship between a little girl and her dog."
Little Bear is already part of the family. When Emmi gets overwhelmed, instead of screaming in frustration, she now crawls over to her dog for comfort.
"Now she's seeking out the dog, and Bear will just let her lay down on her. And she just snuggles her head into Bear's fur," said Tegart. "Emmi calms right down. Her whole demeanour changes. It's just amazing.
"It's like Bear has this intuition."