Eliana Deane is four years old and lives in the United States. She was adopted from China and has several special needs.

She doesn’t speak, avoids eye contact and doesn’t know how to interact or play with others, her parents said. She’s pale, with white hair and vision impairment because of her albinism.

But her parents think a service dog could be life-changing for Eliana. After making an initial investment to pay for a service dog for Eliana, Jay and Tara Deane started a GoFundMe campaign to try to raise the remaining US$12,500 (RM55,750). It recently raised US$6,450 (RM28,800) from 90 donations.

The Deane family includes Eliana, her parents, Jay and Tara, her older sisters, Madison and Ava, and a new sister, Everly. Tara said the family was inspired to also adopt Everly from China.

Eliana, adopted in 2014, came from “deplorable conditions”, her mum said. “Eliana had developmental delays consistent with children adopted from overseas. However, hers were compounded due to her previous living conditions,” Tara said. “We immediately enrolled her in speech, vision, developmental, physical and occupational therapies.”

But after a year, there wasn’t much progress for Eliana, so she moved on to testing, including genetics, a brain MRI and comprehensive autism diagnostics.

“She was labelled with low-functioning autism at that time,” Tara said. “While it was heartbreaking to hear, having a diagnosis allowed us to move forward and treat her accordingly.”

Service dogs can be constant companions for children and help them improve social interactions and relationships, expand their communication, teach life skills, keep them safe, decrease stress and help them gain independence.

“A service dog doesn’t pass judgment but breaks into the world of autism and becomes a crucial part of the family’s life,” Tara said.

After months of research, the Deanes found Ry-Con Service Dogs, a non-profit that trains autism service dogs and PTSD service dogs. The organisation was started because founder Mark Mathis’ son Ryan was diagnosed with autism when he was two, and Mathis struggled to find something that could help Ryan.

“The introduction of a service dog is the necessary bridge that allows the child with autism to interact with a friend that doesn’t scold them, isn’t confused and simply wants to breathe the same air with them every hour of every day,” said Mathis, a state-approved service dog trainer with a specialty in autism service dogs for children.

“For children who have a tendency to isolate, this is a wonderful buddy to stay by their side. For those who tend to wander or become distracted, this is a little piece of their world that can travel with them everywhere they go.”

Ry-Con trains the Briard breed to be service dogs. They are a herding dog, smart and kind and jealously attentive to their charge. Mathis calls them “walking teddy bears” because of their long, double non-molting coat.

“By knowing the breed, and knowing the disability, we can best set up the family and the dog for success,” Mathis said, explaining that Ry-Con works hard to understand the needs of its clients before matching them with a puppy and training that dog specifically for that client.

After being on a waiting list for a year, Eliana has been matched with a puppy at Ry-Con. Butters is a six-month-old Briard puppy chosen with Eliana’s needs in mind. She started her training when she was seven weeks old and is already described as a “mother hen” with strong instincts to guide and protect, Tara said.

“She will look after and protect Eliana. She will know that Eliana is her responsibility – studying and learning how best to tend to her; and in turn, Eliana will trust in and understand that Butters is her protector and best friend,” Tara said. “We expect they will bring out the best in each other.”

The family hopes to welcome Butters next summer but needs help to cover the remaining US$12,500 it will take to pay for Butters and her training.

“From the moment we adopted Eliana, we committed to doing everything we possibly could to enhance her quality of life,” Tara said.

“Eliana’s world can sometimes be a scary place for her. New people, places and situations can all be overwhelming. Having Butters by her side will give her consistency and elicit a calming effect.” – The News & Observer/Tribune News Service/Abbie Bennett