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Autism Service Dogs

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Autism Service Dogs

By Jamie Pacton, MA
Autism Asperger’s Digest  September/October 2014

There are many stories in children’s literature about children and their dogs. One of my favorites is Kate DiCamillo’s Because of Winn Dixie, about a lonely little girl (Opal) and the goofy, loveable dog (Winn Dixie) who helps her make sense of her world and the complicated relationships she has with the people she loves. As I reread this book recently, I found myself wondering if my son Liam, a nonverbal five-year-old with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), would ever have such a companion in his dog.

We have had a dog since Liam was born. Our dog is a furry boxer-chow mix named Sam whom we rescued many years ago. Sam is even-tempered and playful, and my husband Adam has always insisted that our children grow up around dogs. My mother-in-law loves to show off pictures of Adam as a baby, snuggled up with a bottle on the belly of his family’s giant Irish Wolfhound. Due to my father’s allergies, the dogs I grew up with were always kept outdoors. My siblings and I played with them, but we never really thought of them as part of the family. Adam wanted something different for our boys. Adam wanted our kids to snuggle and play with our dog like he did with his own dogs growing up.

For the first few years of Liam’s life, however, I wasn’t sure that he would ever grow close to Sam. Although, as a baby, Liam showed interest in Sam, when his ASD presented around the age of two, he withdrew and ignored our dog. We constantly tried to get Liam re-engaged with Sam, but our best efforts usually ended in Liam pulling Sam’s tail or taking out frustration on the dog. Eventually a wary armistice was reached and both boy and dog seemed to agree to stay out of each other’s way. But this was not enough for Adam and me. Both Liam and Sam are a part of our family, and we longed for them to be friends.

We started strengthening Liam and Sam’s bond through Liam’s applied behavior analysis (ABA) home program. One of the activities that Liam practiced at least three times a day was offering Sam a treat on a small plastic lid. He went through a sequence to get the treat out of a box, offer it to Sam, and let Sam take the treat. Then Liam learned how to give Sam a gentle pat on the head. As Liam did this, either his therapists or Adam and I praised him with phrases like “That’s such a nice way to treat your dog” or “Great work taking care of your friend Sam.” After hundreds of trials, Liam started showing genuine interest in his dog.

These days, one of the first things Liam does when he bursts into the kitchen at 5:00 a.m. is rush to the cabinet where we keep Sam’s treats. He runs into the living room, treat in hand, and wakes his dog by shoving the treat in Sam’s face. Sam is greedy and grateful, and Liam sticks around to hug Sam and lets Sam lick his hand. Then he rushes back into the kitchen for another dog treat. As I watch them interact in the mornings and throughout the day, I’m amazed and pleased at the progress Liam has made. He’s not only aware of his dog now; he’s also learning compassion and gentleness toward another living creature.

Sparked by Liam’s interest in Sam, I have recently started investigating the prospect of getting an autism service dog for Liam. These dogs are more than pets for kids on the spectrum; they can help with communication, safety, interaction, and offer consistent companionship. As the organization Autism Service Dogs of America (ASDA) notes on their website (http://autismservicedogsofamerica.com), “A child who connects to a dog connects to the world.”

I love this philosophy, and my investigations into the viability of adding a service dog to our family led me to interview two friends of mine who have had service dogs for their kids on the spectrum for many years. What I found was that having a service dog, like having a child with ASD, looks different from house to house.

My friend Tommy’s daughter Elaine is in second grade. She has had her service dog Kaia for four years. Elaine has Asperger’s Syndrome and struggles with anxiety in social settings. For her, Kaia is a companion and a friend who demands nothing but love. Kaia sleeps in Elaine’s room, and they play together all the time. Elaine is in charge of feeding Kaia and getting her water each morning. Although Elaine’s parents do some training with Kaia, they really emphasize the connection and relationship between Elaine and the dog. In this case, the service dog is a friend and part of the family.

In my friend Cathy’s house, the role of her son Jake’s service dog Shiloh is quite different. Cathy’s son Jake is 10. He is nonverbal and diagnosed with severe ASD. When he was younger, Jake suffered from years of gastrointestinal ailments, and he had to be tube fed. He still faces many sleep and sensory issues. For Jake, Shiloh is more than just a friend—he is a necessary part of Jake’s day. He goes with Jake to school, the park, the store, on airplanes, and on all family trips. He also helps Jake have some measure of age-appropriate independence. As Cathy told me, “At the park Jake doesn’t want to hold my hand, which is dangerous since he’s a runner, so he is tethered to Shiloh. Shiloh keeps him out of traffic and close to the family.” Shiloh is a working dog, and Cathy maintains his training so that he can help Jake navigate the world.

Although the roles Kaia and Shiloh play are different, the impact they are having on Elaine’s and Jake’s lives is profound. All of my friends report great progress in their children’s engagement and connection after the arrival of a service dog.

Once I had some real-life success stories about life with a service dog in hand, I started to ask questions: where would I get Liam a service dog? How much does one cost? How much training does it really take? And, perhaps most important, how do I make sure we get the right dog for Liam?

These are all questions that I took to the Internet. On the ASDA’s FAQ page, I found many helpful answers. I discovered that this organization won’t place a service dog with a child younger than five, it takes a $13,500 donation to get a dog (much of that money is usually made through fundraisers and from extended family contributions), it takes about a year to get a service dog, there are two phases of training with a service dog, and ASDA carefully evaluates all applications to match the right dog to each child. Beyond this information and much more, I was also quite impressed with the Testimonials section of the website, which offered many encouraging success stories from parents.

ASDA is not the only service dog provider; another reputable organization worth looking into is 4 Paws for Abilities (http://4pawsforability.org/autism-assistance-dog/).  This organization also offers a helpful FAQ page and many positive testimonies from parents.

Although our family does not have a service dog yet, we are excited and ready to open our home to one soon. I encourage you to start researching the possibility for a service dog for your child as well. Connection, companionship, and a best friend: isn’t that what any child—on the spectrum or not—needs?

Note: All names except those of the service dogs have been changed.

Jamie Pacton is a contributing editor for Autism Asperger’s Digest and her work has appeared in The Huffington Post, The Writer, Cricket, Parents, Click, and the book Monday Coffee and Other Stories of Mothering Children with Special Needs. www.jamiepacton.com

Copyright © Autism Asperger’s Digest. 2014. All Rights Reserved. Any distribution, print or electronic, prohibited without permission of author.

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