by Dennis Dalman
Ian and Dewey have become constant ‘round-the-clock best friends – so much so that the very idea of them being separated is intolerable to those who know and love them.
Ian is a 9-year-old boy who lives in St. Augusta. Dewey, an autism service dog, is a 4-year-old golden labrador who had special training at the nationally accredited organization called “Can Do Canines” in New Hope. After the McMahons applied for a dog and waited four years, Dewey was given – free – to Ian and his family in 2022 when an instant loving bond between dog and boy occurred. The wait was worth it.
“Dewey is such a gentle, calm dog,” said Ian’s mother, Laura. “He’s just amazing. The bond he has with Ian is really wonderful to see. People comment on that all the time when they see the two of them in public. They love to cuddle, to give hugs. He’s such a sweetheart.”
Ian is the son of Laura and Chadd McMahon and has two siblings, ages 5 and 13. Chadd is a physician (an interventional radiologist). Prior to having children, Laura was a certified public accountant who has a master’s degree in business administration.
When Ian was just 8 months old, his parents knew something was not quite right. At age 2, he was diagnosed as having epilepsy. Then at 2-1/2 years old he was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a form of cancer. As if that were not bad enough, the next year it was learned Ian has a genetic condition known as Syngap, which caused him to develop a form of autism.
Ian has speech difficulties and has intense fixations on certain toys with a hyper-focus on robots, Laura said, in an interview with the Newsleaders.
“Ian has difficulty being understood,” Laura said. “He speaks usually in three- to five-word phrases. That difficulty becomes more pronounced if he is overstimulated by something in the environment or certain requests are made of him when he begins to feel overwhelmed. His brain is just wired differently.”
Ian, who is a student at Kimball Elementary School, participates in applied-behavior analysis. He also does speech therapy, occupational therapy and horse-riding – an activity he absolutely loves.
And now he has what he loves most of all – his constant soft-furry pal named Dewey.
“Ian is super-silly,” Laura said. “He loves to joke and be playful. He has brown hair and big brown eyes and a smile that lights up the room. He loves to play outside and enjoys playground equipment.”
Dewey even accompanies Ian to school and stays there by his side all day. The dog has an astonishing ability to calm Ian down, to comfort him, to make him feel safe and unthreatened.
“Dewey changed Ian’s life, and he changed our family’s life too,” Laura said.
Day in and day out, Ian and Dewey are inseparable, but there is a lurking fear that bond may be broken – during their school time together, anyway. Ian’s family has been in an emotional limbo, waiting, wondering, worrying if a legal decision will split the bond between the boy and the dog at Kimball Elementary School.
It’s been a long, expensive struggle.
The McMahons checked out five schools before settling on Kimball, which seemed to fit Ian’s needs the best. But when Dewey came along, a sudden worry popped up when the school checked with legal advisors and determined that Ian’s paraprofessional, who is with him all day at school, cannot be expected to have a one-to-one supportive relationship with the dog along too. Laura was told she would have to provide a third-party handler to help with Dewey in school. That “third-party” handler became Laura herself.
After meeting with school officials and getting repeated denials on the subject of Ian and Dewey, Laura attended school with the boy and the dog starting in October 2022.
Meantime she filed a due-process complaint under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. They went to court in Kimball May 2023. One of the people in court representing the Kimball School District was Erin Dohrmann, the executive director of the Benton-Stearns Educational District. Headquartered in Sartell, the BSED helps with special-education programming in six school districts in this region.
The next month, June, the presiding judge ruled Dewey is essential for Ian to help facilitate his access to education. Laura noted it was the first legal decision in Minnesota concerning the use of a service dog in special education.
The McMahons were stunned one day to learn the school board had appealed the judge’s decision.
“It was just unbelievable what they have done,” Laura said. “So much more went on too. Just unbelievable. The school (officials) determined the dog was not necessary without even seeing Ian and Dewey together.”
The McMahon’s became aware there is one other autism service dog in the area, bonding daily with a student in the Sauk Rapids-Rice school district. That fact was introduced as evidence in the McMahons’ successful court case. But later, Laura said, the para in that school who would previously handle that dog by its leash was told not to hold the leash anymore.
The school filed its appeal with the U.S. District Court of Minnesota (federal district court). The original hearing and decision by the judge in favor of Ian and Dewey was under the Office of Administrative Hearings. But now the case, including the McMahons’ response to the school’s appeal, is now in the federal district court system.
Laura filed her disagreement with the school’s appeal to the U.S. Office of Administrative Hearings.
“We have already spent about $85,000,” she said. “There is no court date settled yet. Now we are waiting for that scheduling order. We keep waiting. And waiting.”
Laura said she decided to make the plight of Ian and Dewey public via the media because she wants people in this area – especially those with autistic children – to know what a long struggle it’s been to keep her boy and his dog together in school.
Meanwhile, for the McMahons, the agonizing wait continues. They are happy so far that Dewey can go to school with Ian – at least until a court decision would disallow that, something they dread.
“We’re hoping that by this spring it will be resolved,” Laura said. “We are hoping a court decision will favor Ian and Dewey, that there will be a legal basis for them to be together in school.”