April 03, 2015 11:50 PM

For 6-year-old Mark Fontana and many children with autism, developing independence, confidence, and social acceptance is an overwhelming challenge, felt acutely by both the child and family. In scarier moments, these kids can wander away from their families.

“He would compulsively run away. He would run into the street,” Mark’s mother, Emily Fontana, said on a moving episode of TODAY on Friday. “He would run outside and try to jump into any pool even though he couldn’t swim. It was absolutely terrifying.”

Enter Echo, a service dog from the Heeling Autism program at Guiding Eyes for the Blind, which pairs autistic children with fluffy companions to help minimize the sense of isolation these kids feel due to struggles with verbal communication and interpersonal connections.

“It’s 100 percent success. It really is,” Caroline McCabe Sandler, the director of the program, told TODAY. “I watch children who are normally held by the wrist tight, parents so stressed. I watch these children kind of dancing next to their dogs they’re happy to be free.”

Almost immediately, Mark’s family, teachers, and therapists noticed a drastic difference in his behavior after he welcomed the new buddy into his life.

“Mark exhibits a confidence that I’ve never seen before,” his mother told TODAY. “Mark is a cool kid at school now. He’s got a dog.”

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