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Donations buy dream dog for autistic child in N.C.

Four-year-old Molly's long wait for "Happy," her new service dog, is over.  Maybe fate introduced the moderately autistic child who lives in Henderson to the 13-month-old golden retriever who was born in Kentucky.

The paths of the beautiful girl with the dark eyes and the ladylike canine calm beyond her years crossed in May when they began to bond at the 4 PAWS training center in Xenia, Ohio.  Molly made the first move by tossing out a treat that landed on the floor between them. Happy made the second by eating it. Over the next couple of weeks, the ritual was repeated many times while they were learning to become a team.

Susan Williamson, Molly's mother, captured the event in a short video now appearing on the family's Web site. The film is used to thank everyone who helped the dream come true by giving money and other forms of support. It also contains information to educate the public about autism, as well as parents interested in obtaining a friend-for-life, like Happy, for their son or daughter.

"Although she is still young, she is not destructive," Susan Williamson said during a recent interview. "Of all the dogs in her training class, she was the most calm and sensitive."

During the course, Happy started looking at Molly and following her around.  "That was what the trainer wanted," Susan said. "I was so pleased. I knew Molly liked animals, but I wasn't sure she would really interact with a dog right away."

Susan Williamson, who was to become Happy's handler, was really the one being trained.  "I had to learn to give commands in the right way so Happy understood what I wanted," she said. "She already knew them."  If Happy is told to "sit," the 50-pound caretaker will remain immobile until she hears "free," which means she can now relax and walk around.  "Touch" requires Happy to use her paw to disrupt Molly's repetitive behavior of moving her arms and legs.  "Track" tells the golden to follow the trail of Molly's skin cells on the ground. She can also rely on scent. A special collar and leash are used. When a large buckle on the collar snaps into place, Happy knows it's time to get serious.

Originally named Aurora, Happy and her five brothers and sisters were about 8 weeks old when their owner gave them to a foster home not far from their birthplace. Two months later, they were sent to a large farm near Xenia. It was there that the puppies began learning how to give assistance to children with mental disabilities.  One of Happy's fellow classmates was her brother, Simba. After graduation, he traveled to New Jersey to live with a child whose level of autism is similar to Molly's. His new name is Mac.

Last September, Molly's family set out to raise $12,000 on the Internet so 4 PAWS would school a furry companion to look after her wherever she went, and to search for her if she got lost. Donations ultimately amounted to about $20,000 after Molly's story was publicized.  The additional $8,000 was sent to 4 PAWS to help other children get their dogs.

The meeting of Happy and Molly was partly made possible through contributions from her neighbors in Vance County.  A large chunk of the money was given by a woman in Cary. The only thing she wanted in return was to see Happy together with her young mistress after the family came back to North Carolina.  Other financial gifts were from strangers, businesses, schools, churches and civic groups across the state and South Carolina.

Expenses that included the round-trip drive in a pickup truck and the 10-day stay in a dog-friendly hotel close to the training center also were covered.  Funds were generated by Kerr-Vance Academy, Vance Charter School, and the confirmation class at the Church of the Holy Innocents in Henderson.  Besides her mother, Molly went to Xenia with her grandfather, Gary Ambert, who lives in Greenville. They returned to Henderson June 1, and bringing Happy with them.

Molly and her pal recently went on a trial run as a team. At one stop, a well-meaning employee said Happy couldn't come inside. He changed his mind when she was identified as an assistance dog by Molly's father, Dale.  A bright red harness on the larger partner informed customers and passers-by that the pair was on a mission. Molly was connected to Happy with a tether. Susan Williamson used a leash to control the dog.  "Happy did great at PetSmart," Susan Williamson said. "She wasn't distracted by other dogs or pet snacks lying on the floor."

Dale, a journalism and English teacher at Northern Vance High, didn't travel to Xenia because he had to give exams.  As for Susan Williamson, she is working at home on her thesis to get a master's degree in English with concentration in creative writing. It would be conferred by East Carolina University.  In her spare time, she writes children's stories for books and magazines.

Dale is also a student these days because Susan is teaching him to be a dog-handler. It includes giving Happy her commands with the sound of authority that she has come to expect.  "I haven't earned the respect yet that Happy has for Susan," Dale said. "I also need to learn what the public's rights are and what our rights are. It's a learning experience for us all."

Happy's harness contains several cards. One lists Molly as her owner. Another cites federal regulations that spell out places where they are and are not allowed to go together.  At night, when she is off-duty, Happy sleeps on the floor on a comforter near Molly's bed.

The family also includes Molly's older sister, Natalie, who is also glad to welcome the newest member of the clan.  "I like how Happy is playful, and how she is getting used to us," Natalie said.

"Happy's personality definitely fits this family," Dale said. "She has a little more energy than the rest of us."

The Williamson family Web site: