Canines can be more than companions; every year, thousands of people are helped by service dogs who offer support for people with disabilities, veterans with PTSD, and people who are visually or hearing impaired. Is there really any better therapy than the love from a dog?
It was difficult for the Mouland family to go to the grocery store, the movies, or even just walk down the street – activities many would consider part of normal family life. Their daughter Kate, aged five, was diagnosed with autism at age two, and doesn’t have a sense of fear. She didn’t like holding hands and would run off and make loud noises.
“Everywhere we went we had an escape plan – we would go with two vehicles, and my wife and I would take turns going home with Kate,” says her father, Al.
Everything changed for the Mouland family, who live near Saint John, New Brunswick, when they received Oakley, a service dog from National Service Dogs (www.nsd.on.ca), a non-profit organization that developed the first Certified Service Dog for Autism Program of its kind in the world.
“Now when we go out, Kate is tethered to Oakley and she has an easier time of it – we call Oakley her ‘intelligence anchor’,” says Al. “She doesn’t run away and she is a lot calmer.”
Over the last few years, there has been a growing demand for service dogs to support children with autism spectrum disorders. These dogs can help prevent a child from “bolting” or wandering off, as the child is anchored to the dog. Some children with autism are prone to meltdowns and don’t handle change well; during those times, they can go to the dog to self-soothe. In addition, having a dog often provides a point of contact with others, giving the child an opportunity for social interaction.
“Our service dogs for children with autism increase safety levels for families, many of whom can now go on vacation for the first time,” says Danielle Forbes, Executive Director of National Service Dogs. “The dogs interrupt self-injuring behaviour by providing tactile stimulation. They also help children manage anxiety so they may be able to sleep through the night for the first time.”
Specially-trained canines assist individuals with a range of disabilities
Guide and service dogs help those with disabilities lead more independent lives, while keeping them safe so they are able to get out into the community to work and attend school or social events.
Traditionally, guide dogs helped those with visual impairments, but canine programs have now expanded to provide assistance to those with a wide range of disabilities across a broad spectrum of ages. Along with National Service Dogs, there are a number of national and regional associations throughout Canada dedicated to training guide and service dogs, and connecting the animals with those who need them. Many organizations use specific breeds, chosen for their suitability to this demanding work.
“We use mainly Labrador Retrievers, and occasionally Golden Retrievers, as well as Standard and Miniature Poodles, which are good if there are allergies in the family,” says Jenny Gladish, Communications Manager of the Lions Foundation of Canada. “We find these breeds are well suited to the job.”
John Wheelwright, Executive Director of Dogs with Wings Assistance Dog Society in Alberta, agrees that Labs are particularly good at being service dogs. “They’re easy to train, are social and healthy, and can work with more than one person,” he says. “They bond with volunteer families and respond to instructors, then transfer their loyalty to clients.”
Some organizations, including National Service Dogs and the Lions Foundation, even have their own breeding programs. This allows them to breed for the traits they look for in a good service dog.
Sandra Cramer, Puppy Raising Supervisor with BC & Alberta Guide Dogs/Autism Support Dogs, chooses breeds that are balanced, have a desire to work and want to please people. “We pick dogs with these traits for the breeding stock, and if they are healthy, to go through the training,” she says. “If the dogs aren’t suited to the work, we don’t force them.”
Jane Boake, founder and teacher of The Canine Opportunity, People Empowerment (COPE) program, which uses high school students to train service dogs, adds that she chooses dogs for their calmness, willingness to work, and low prey drive (such as running after squirrels).
Special training starts early
Typically, at the age of eight weeks, puppies enter a program with volunteer families under the guidance of a supervisor. This lasts about 18 months, during which puppies learn obedience, manners, socialization and how to behave in public spaces. After that, the dogs go into several months of adult training before being selected for their guide or service dog specialties. They are then matched with clients, who either travel to the training facility, or work with a trainer in their own homes, to learn about living with their animals.
A COPE service dog is paired twice – first with a high school student who learns job skills while training the dog, and then with a person using a wheelchair. During their training, the dogs are reading buddies for elementary students and visit seniors in care residences.
Most organizations have waiting lists for those who need dogs. “Our wait time for autistic support dogs is about two years,” says John. “Our goal is to get dogs for children when they’re aged five to seven years. We encourage families to apply early, but for some, it’s hard to get a diagnosis.”
Most non-profit organizations provide guide and service dogs at no charge to their clients. Therefore, since it costs between $25,000 and $40,000 to train each animal, there is an ongoing need for funding.
“Approximately 25% of our donations come from Lions Clubs across Canada, and we raise the remainder from donors and at events,” says Jenny.
Dogs with Wings aims to expand their program to meet the demand. “We now have between 40 to 60 dogs in our training program, which we are hoping to increase by about 30,” says John. “We feel that everyone who needs a service or guide dog should have one, at no cost to them.”
To ensure that guide and service dogs continue providing help to those in need, there are many ways you can get involved – by volunteering as a puppy raiser, making a donation, or taking part in a fundraiser. “Our clients tell us their service dogs are priceless and give them the confidence to live more enriched lives,” says Danielle. “They now have hope for the future.”
“Having a service dog has taken the stress off my wife and myself, knowing that Kate is safe,” says Al. “Oakley has given our family peace of mind and the freedom to relax.”