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Comic-Con 2019: Service animals are superheroes at the convention (and they cosplay)

Orange County Register - 7/19/2019

Jul. 19--With over 130,000 attendees expected at the 50th Annual Comic-Con Convention in San Diego this year, the event can quickly become congested and overwhelming.

For some, without the help of an animal companion, it would be impossible to ever enjoy an event like Comic-Con.

Robert and Michelle Fox of San Diego have loved bringing their son Nicholas, who has autism, to Comic-Con for the last six years. However, it has been much easier since they received their yellow Labrador Retriever service dog, Phoebe, four years ago through the non-profit, Love Heels Canine Partners.

"The people here working Comic-Con are wonderful," Robert Fox said. "They probably have the best ADA set ups, especially for something that's just once a year. They're very on top of everything, organized and so accommodating."

While Comic-Con has a no-pets policy, they do allow service animals. The Disabled Services booth in Hall A provides service animal stickers for those with ADA badges, which helps more easily identify the working service animals and their appropriate handlers. Animals not wearing something that identifies them as a service animal may be stopped by security.

A dog named Grom

Jenny Wirth of Fallbrook is attending Comic-Con with her 15-year-old son, Liam, and her 16-year-old son, Mack. Mack has autism and has a four-year-old yellow Labrador Retriever service dog named Grom, which the family got through Good Dog! Autism Companions. This is Grom's second Comic-Con and Wirth said working with the Comic-Con staff to ensure Mack's safety and comfort during the convention the first year was so seamless it made the decision to return this year an easier one.

"When I went up to the ADA counter, they put a sticker on my son's badge with a paw mark on it and the woman was asking questions," Wirth recalled of her first trip to Comic-Con.

"I appreciate when officials within an organization know to ask me, 'Is this dog for a disability? 'What tasks do they perform?' I can say that he helps with crowd safety, navigation, regulation and redirection for my son and they're like 'Okay, perfect." They are very professional here. Disney will do that now, too. They ask the right questions and I always thank them for asking because if you can't answer those questions, you really aren't clarifying that your dog has had the training or is really ready for something like this."

Another reason why Phoebe's a wonder

Phoebe helped navigate Nicholas to the NECA Toys booth during Comic-Con's preview night so he could pick up the convention-exclusive "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" four-pack of figures for his collection. Phoebe is a social dog, which helps Nicholas start conversations with others. However, she's so social that people sometimes forget she's a working service dog and shouldn't be pet by strangers during a convention.

"She is very pretty so people do come up and ask if they can pet her," Michelle Fox said. "I feel like people have come a long way as far as service dogs go, because at least they're asking now. She is very social, which is in her nature and why these dogs do well with children with autism, but we have to politely tell people 'No, she is working.'"

Phoebe is also walking with a little extra pep in her step and strutting around in her Wonder Women cosplay this year since she is now fully recovered following a surgery and eight rounds of chemotherapy for cancer that was discovered 18 months ago.

"She missed Comic-Con last year and her prognosis was maybe a year," Michelle said. "They gave her a year, but now here we are. She really is our Wonder Woman in a lot of ways."

Work and cosplay

Phoebe's not the only one that gets in on the popular cosplay aspect of the convention. Grom and Mack have decided on a "Pokémon Detective Pikachu" theme this year. Mark will dress up as Ash Ketchum and they have a special detective hat for Grom to transform into Detective Pikachu. On another of the days, Wirth and her sons plan to dress up like the wilderness explorers from the movie, "Up," while Grom will go as the dog Doug, sporting an orange wilderness scout bandana since he reminds Mack of the dog from the beloved Disney film.

Both Phoebe and Grom went through extensive training to be certified as service animals. Yellow Labrador Retrievers area popular breed of service dog, but there were several other breeds offering their humans comfort and companionship spotted around Comic-Con including Blue, a friendly Blue Heeler and Corgi mix; Troy, a Husky and Shepard mix with gorgeous mix-colored eyes; and Storm, an American Pit Bull with an irresistible smile.

Help for the whole family

Wirth said she could see a change in Mack almost instantly when Grom came into their lives and the Foxes say the bond between their son and his Phoebe is undeniable.

"I never would have done Comic-Con before having a service dog," Wirth said. "Not only did the dog help stretch my son, I never realized how much the dog would stretch me. Special needs families, we can get isolated. We're just busy, doing therapies and there are always things we just can't do because it is too difficult. But life is for living and the dog has really brought about a real quality of life for us.

"There's now a real focus on 'Hey, is everyone happy?' 'Are we doing all the things we can and want to do?' 'Are we cheating ourselves a little bit?' Having a service dog gives my son a different way to bond with us as a family. He has such pride in the dog and I didn't realize the self advocacy it would create. He's not embarrassed of having autism or that he needs a dog. He's proud he's able to do things."

READ MORE about SDCC 2019:

* Photo galleries: Cosplay -- Scenes from Comic-Con -- Her Universe Fashion Show -- Preview night

* Recaps: Day 1 -- 5 memorable moments from opening day |Preview night and the Running of the Nerds

* Fashion: Her Universe Fashion Show winners -- SoCal Her Universe designers -- Interview with Her Universe's Ashley Eckstein -- The Hero Within clothing line -- What cosplay weapons are allowed

* Inside SDCC: A daily guide to TV and movie panels -- The $1.1 million comic book -- Mensa members predict the future -- The future of college esports

* Super fans: "Dragon Ball Z" world record -- Wayward Cocktails "Supernatural" party

* Things to do: No badge needed for these activities -- Comic-Con museum in Balboa Park -- Where to drink and party

* History: The 12-year-old who co-founded Comic-Con -- 50 facts about Comic-Con's 50 years

* The big issues: Service animals are superheroes -- Cosplay, panels reflect diversity -- Security measures

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(c)2019 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.)

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