Dogs and kids just seem to go together. Whether itâ€™s running around the yard and roughhousing or just sitting quietly watching TV together on the sofa, dogs seem to gravitate toward kids. For some special needs kids, however, dogs are more than just a friend and play buddy; they are actually a daily caregiver.
The idea of service dogs for disabled children is a little-known yet burgeoning niche in the world of special needs. Everyone knows about service dogs for the blind. I have to admit that until recently, I had never even considered service dogs for other disabilities, let alone children. Then a friend of mine whose son is autistic mentioned that she was thinking about getting an autism service dog for her son. I was puzzled. Her son suffers from sensory processing disorder so I didnâ€™t understand what a dog would be able to do for him. Kids with autism usually donâ€™t have physical handicaps. But as I talked to her and started reading up on the topic, I found that well-trained dogs can be a huge help to autistic kids, as well as kids with other disabilities.
For autistic children, service dogs donâ€™t offer specific physical assistance, but are highly trained in behavior disruption, which is a major component of autism. As any parent of an autistic child can tell you, behavior disruption is common. It can be different triggers for different children, but the common denominator is that something (usually something benign to most of us) sets off what we laypeople would call an emotional or physical meltdown. This can be a mild tantrum or can be a full-blown one complete with collapsing on the floor and shrieking. Trying to calm an autistic child in the throes of such a meltdown can be a major challenge. It turns out that a dog trained to recognize such behavior and engage the child is a highly calming influence on the child. The dog essentially soothes the child and comforts him or her, shortening the duration and severity of the meltdown, and also cutting down on the number of meltdowns. Rather than getting overly focused on whatever it is that is bothering him or her, the child seems to focus on the ever-present dog and can bypass what otherwise might trigger a reaction.
The dog also gives other support that is less tangible but equally important â€“ giving the child something to focus on if distracted, providing companionship, and assisting with developing friendships with other children. Special needs children are sadly often excluded by so-called normal children which can add a tremendous feeling of isolation for such children. Having a service dog helps break the ice with new kids and provides a constant companion when other children are not around.
Physically, a service dog also helps protect the child and keep him or her safe. One major concern with autistic children is that they are easily distracted and may not think as logically as otherÂ children. Â They are more prone to wandering off in public because they get distracted by something and follow it, even if it takes them into traffic or near a dangerous body of water. Â They may decide to leave the house alone for no apparent reason, even in the middle of the night. Service dogs are trained to restrain the child and act as a second pair of eyes on the child, which is a huge asset to the parents.
Legal fight over service dogs in school
A great piece of news recently came out of Oregon involving an autistic boy named Scooter Givens and his service dog, Madison. For years, Scooterâ€™s parents fought their sonâ€™s school for the right to have the dog attend school with him under the ADA (American with Disabilities Act). The school fought back. Finally, the school backed down and agreed to at least try to allow Scooter to bring Madison to school with him. They are starting with part-time hours and working up to full days. If Madison can keep Scooter from having meltdowns, it should be a win-win for both the school and the family.
Cost and Availability
Service dogs are not cheap, nor are they readily available. A well-trained dog can cost Â upwards of $20,000, depending on the level of training that is required (which is why my friend is not heading out this weekend to buy one). While this may seem excessive, the cost is actually justified when you realize that it can take six months or more of intense workÂ to properly train a service dog. That is months of food, shelter and paying a trainer to spendÂ hundreds of hours training each dog, as well as the additional training time when the dog is matched with the family. It is a labor-intensive process. However, there are ways to meet the cost. Many training facilities seek outside funding to help defray the costs of training, which lowers the ultimate cost to the family. Some families will actually do fundraising themselves to try to pay their portion of the cost. Even with this approach, however, the sad fact is that service dogs are unfortunately out of reach for a large number of people, especially when you consider the other high costs of raising a special needs child.
In addition to autism, service dogs are trained to care for people with other disabilities â€“ deafness, mobility issues, and one that I found absolutely fascinating â€“ seizure disorder. Dogs are trained to assist people who suffer seizures by getting the telephone and medicines, and keeping the person physically safe during a seizure. Some dogs can even go so far as to anticipate an oncoming seizure and alert the person to lay down in a safe position before the seizure starts. How the dog knows this is anyoneâ€™s guess. So far, science has been unable to explain it. Some researchers theorize that during the earliest phase of a seizure, the personâ€™s electrical brain activity subtly changes a personâ€™s odor which the dog detects. Dogs have a sense of smell that is 300 times stronger than what we have. While this may be the explanation, no one knows for sure so it remains a fascinating mystery.
If you are interested in a special needs dog, there are a number of organizations out there for you to consider. Here are just a few:
4 Paws for Ability: Â http://www.4pawsforability.org/
North Star Foundation: Â http://www.northstardogs.com/autism.shtml
Dogs for the Deaf: Â Â http://www.dogsforthedeaf.org/index.php
Have any of our readers had any experience with special needs dogs? Â I would love to hear your stories.
Photo from staplenews.com