There’s a reason dogs have earned a reputation as “man’s best friend.” And in the case of Ridley Fitzmorris, one lovable pup truly earned the nickname.

As Jillian and Eric Fitzmorris learned, some four-legged friends can be so much more than a friendly companion. They can be the missing link to help a 4-year-old thrive while living with autism. “Ridley’s more on the severe end of the spectrum,” Jillian explains. “He’s nonverbal, has a hard time sleeping, and has some social deficits.”

Ever since Ridley’s diagnosis two years ago, the Fitzmorris family has had him immersed in at-home applied behavioral analysis therapy (ABA therapy) with additional speech, occupational, and music therapy. He also attends a half special needs/half peer model preschool. But schooling and therapy aside, Jillian and Eric were still looking for additional ways to support their son. That’s when Jillian read that a service dog could possibly help him with his sleeping problems and difficulty handling social situations. Unfortunately, she also discovered how expensive service dogs can be.

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Image source: Fitzmorris family

“I said, ‘Oh, my gosh, I'm a school social worker. We do not have this kind of money!’” she explains with a laugh. “And my husband stays at home to take care of Ridley and our other kids.”

Not one to give up easily, that’s when Jillian realized she could use some of the skills from her job to her advantage. “When you’re a social worker, you find yourself thinking outside of the box to use any resources out there to help other students.”

Jillian started looking online for ways to help cover the costs, and that’s when she came across YouCaring, which offers free online fundraising for health and humanitarian causes.

“YouCaring is more about specifically helping individuals who are struggling with health issues and improving their lives. Living with autism impacts Ridley’s whole life, and a service dog could surely change his life for the better” explains his mother.

It didn’t take long for the fundraising campaign to spread in their hometown of Lawrence, Kansas. Within a week, contributions from all over town started pouring in. Even local restaurants rallied together to donate a portion of their sales to Ridley’s campaign.

“That was huge!” she says. “We really didn't even really know the owners that well.” And whether the gift was $10 or $1,000, Jillian felt incredibly grateful with every new contributor’s name and message.

“There was a lot of crying. I tried to express how thankful we were to people. It was kind of hard to ask for help when I'm a social worker, myself, who helps other families. But this was for my son.”

In less than two months, Jillian and Eric received over 60 campaign contributions, totaling well over the $6,000 needed to adopt a new friend for Ridley — a new friend that goes by the name Hondo.

Hondo was originally trained by Protection Plus Service Animals. The organization mostly raises dogs for people with vision and mobility issues, but they trained Hondo especially for Ridley’s needs after hearing his story. “They said, ‘You know what? We'll take you on. We can train the dog for your needs.’” Jillian explains. “Instead of waiting the typical two-year period for a service dog, it was about four months."

Almost instantly, Ridley and Hondo became an inseparable pair. Hondo’s main priority is to provide Ridley with a calming presence, and he does it well. He wears the “man’s best friend” tagline as expertly as he wears his “Autism Service Dog” vest.

“Ridley’s always been so happy, but he’d sometimes moan or flap his fingers in front of his face, and kids were less likely to walk up to him. So when they see a big, cute puppy with him wearing a vest that says Autism Service Dog, the kids come up and say, ‘Oh, hi. Can we pet your dog?’ And then Ridley will look at them and smile, and engage more than he used to. Hondo is providing a bridge to help Ridley conquer his social disconnectedness. It’s awesome to see and a real sign of progress.”

Hondo has also been trained in basic search and rescue to track Ridley’s scent if Ridley were to go missing, as children on the spectrum are sometimes inclined to run away. “Ridley would do that a lot if he would go to the park,” Jillian says. “But now I say, ‘Ridley, you need to hold Hondo. Walk Hondo.’ It gives him that sense of responsibility. Sometimes I’ll say ‘I need to stick with my partner, my friend,’ and he'll hold onto Hondo instead of just running away into the field or having a tantrum. Hondo has really helped curb Ridley’s tendency toward elopement and just getting too stressed in general.”

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Image source: Fitzmorris family

One of the biggest improvements overall has been Hondo’s ability to help Ridley at night. Before getting his pup, Ridley was prone to night terrors and an overall difficulty sleeping. Jillian, Eric, and Ridley’s siblings would all try to provide comfort, but Hondo’s calming presence proved to be the missing link to an uninterrupted night’s sleep.

For Jillian, Eric, and their growing family (with another baby on the way), they’re eternally grateful for the support of others in bringing Hondo into Ridley’s life, and they recommend asking for help if other parents find themselves in similar situations.

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Image source: Fitzmorris family

“The whole experience has been very, very heartwarming,” Jillian gushed. “And humbling. It just makes you very grateful. And I feel like, as a parent, literally you can’t give your kids everything that you want to. But I feel like, thankfully, today with technology and with a compassionate society, you can get your kids what they need, especially when it comes to their physical and mental health.

“Just don’t be afraid to ask others for help. You can do it in a way that inspires people and also humbles yourself and lets people know that we’re a hardworking family. Even the four-legged members.”

Michael Kasian is a features editor at Healthline who is focused on sharing the stories of others living with invisible illnesses, as he himself lives with Crohn’s.