Dogs a huge help for special needs kids

This post was authored by Michael Sanders and posted to The Eye Opener on May 9th, 2011.

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Dogs and kids just seem to go together. Whether it’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 didn’t understand what a dog would be able to do for him. Kids with autism usually don’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 don’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 – 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 other children.  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.  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, Scooter’s parents fought their son’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  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 work  to properly train a service dog. That is months of food, shelter and paying a trainer to spend  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.

Other disabilities:

In addition to autism, service dogs are trained to care for people with other disabilities – deafness, mobility issues, and one that I found absolutely fascinating – 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 anyone’s guess. So far, science has been unable to explain it. Some researchers theorize that during the earliest phase of a seizure, the person’s electrical brain activity subtly changes a person’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:

North Star Foundation:

Dogs for the Deaf:

Have any of our readers had any experience with special needs dogs?  I would love to hear your stories.


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8 Responses to “Dogs a huge help for special needs kids”

  1. JadeNo Gravatar says:

    While a service dog for an autistic child may sound like a great idea there are serveral factors that need to be considered. The issue of a child having the dog at school has been mentioned. Under the ADA no one else is required to watch the dog or take care of it. A young child, let alone one with autism, is unable to properly care for the dog while at school. Also, companionship and emotional support are not protected under the ADA. It is going to be the parents that have to feed, groom, clean up, and all around care for the dog.

  2. Brian NashNo Gravatar says:

    Good practical issues in your comment. Do you know if these young children can bring the dog to school with them? This seems to potentially present a whole different set of “issues” when discussing service dogs. Do you know what “arrangements” have worked IF the child is even allowed to take a dog to school with them?
    Brian (Nash)

  3. Mike SandersNo Gravatar says:

    Jade: You raise an interesting question about who cares for the dog during the day at school. It’s not a question that I’ve seen specifically addressed in my reading. However, in terms of watching the dog and taking care of it, keep in mind that these dogs are highly trained service dogs. They are amazingly well-behaved so they don’t require much in the way of supervision. Other than bathroom breaks (which I imagine can be handled between classes) there doesn’t seem to be a lot of work required during the day to take care of them.

    You are right that companionship and emotional support are not protected interests, and schools have made it clear that they will not allow dogs into school for those reasons alone. The dog must provide actual service to the child above and beyond simple companionship. It’s not an easy distinction to make, and both parents and schools are trying to work out the rules in this brand-new arena.

    Here is a link to a good NPR story that addresses more of these issues.

  4. CatharynNo Gravatar says:

    Additional info on service dogs:

    Guidelines are currently in the works regarding service and therapy dogs.

    How would a child be unable to care for the dog at school? These dogs are highly trained, they do not require grooming or feeding at school although offering water would be humane. As far as clean up these dogs are actually trained not to go while on the clock. The idea here is not the autistic child taking care of the dog, the idea is the dog enabling the autistic child to participate in a setting just as his/her neurotypical peers.

    Under FAPE every child has the right to access education with the accommodations necessary to enable him to succeed.

    Too often people forget that these children are children first and their autism or disability is second. There is a child there who would like to participate and learn but needs various forms of accommodations to enable his potential. Whether or not a dog needs water at some point during a school day should not be the reason a child is denied a needed accommodation.

  5. JadeNo Gravatar says:

    For Brian, I believe that in many cases it is on a case by case bases, I believe the one in the story was on a trial period. And in each case would have to be looked on an individual case basis I assume.

    Catharyn (and Mike in part), I am blunt so don’t take it the wrong way, please. As far as the ADA (I am not a lawyer) and service dogs last time I was informed and read it had actually restricted the term of service “animal” and therapy and emotional support are not protected(“Therapy” dogs have never been protected like a service dog)(Mike also pointed this out).
    Now, here is where I am going to get really blunt, sorry. If you think a service dog does not require any work as they are the ones doing the work you are sorely mistaken. While they are highly trained, they require that they are provided with what is needed, and that the handler has full control over them and is able to command them if needed. The dog must not be denied water(which can lead to health issues) and must not be denied bathroom breaks(which can also lead to health issues), and those will need to be addressed at some point during the day at school. Who is suppose to do that? Most likely, legally the child. What happens if the child and the dog is outside during playtime and gets stung by a bee and goes into anaphylatic shock? Or cuts it’s paw on glass or other object (my dog sliced her pad on the snow/ice that had melted and re-froze and turned sharp) and bleeds profusely? Or tears a nail? What happens when other children can’t help themselves and keep petting or trying to feed it at lunch or snack time? Who is going to make sure that the dog if needed is commanded and ask the children to please leave it alone and no food for the dog? What happens if they go outside for playtime and the dog gets mud on the feet because it was slightly muddy or even wet? Or what if the dog comes to school like that? Or, what happens when a “meltdown” happens and the child happens to have glue or paint and the dog gets it on them in process?

    The ADA and the FAPE most likely clash as many laws do, however under the ADA it is reasonable accommodations as far as I know, and we are back to the no one else having to be responsible for the dog. I have even heard of organizations taking away dogs that are not properly cared for.
    It is not just the child that needs to be thought of, but also the dog. While service dogs are an invaluable assest, they are not right for everyone, and unfortantly, when it comes to children it gets even more complicated. we must keep in mind that these are animals not robots. There are plenty of people/groups that would like service animals not be used at all so lets not give them any reason(s). The ADA is/has been resricted due to abuse and in some cases misunderstanding, from what I have read (or at least there has been efforts to do so).

    Now, I am NOT a lawyer so this is not legal advice (any of what I have written), but I did years of research for myself and had a service dog for a brief time before it became apparent that after a slight progression in my condition I had to retire her to my dad’s farm as I could no longer care for her both “on” and “off” the job, and could not require any one else to do do for me. I have been disabled all of my life. I love the idea of animals helping people, and they are good at, but they are not for everyone.

    In some cases, a weekly or other type of schedule, session of Hippo Therapy might help and worth a try if a service dog is not right, or even if it is.

  6. Brian NashNo Gravatar says:

    Great comment – you’ve obviously “been there done that” in terms of a service dog. Your examples of practical problems and issues (feeding, breaks, injuries, petting by classmates, etc.) have made me pause and think more on this issue. You mention several times that you are not a lawyer. That may be, but – as I said (which is why I’ve taken particular note of your latest comment) – whether you are or not – you’ve had experiences that I’ve not had – you’ve been disabled you’re entire life and you had a service dog (for a brief time). You’ve had to live with the practicalities and realities of your disability and trying to cope with the restrictions and “issues” of having a service dog.

    I’m going to leave to Mike (and others) the task of addressing the ADA aspects of your comment. I’m interested in 2 of the other facets you address:(1) they (service dogs) are not for everyone; and (2) Hippo (horse) Therapy.

    For whom DO service dogs work well? Just wondering: as you’ve thought about this and lived the experience – for whom do they work best? My guess (after thinking about what you wrote): – kids and people who are not in school or working? Even for kids in school and working disabled adults – restricted to use when at home? In your research, have you found that some locales or jurisdictions are more amendable to service dogs in school and/or the workplace or is it so individualized (if you know) that it’s almost impossible to predict who will be accommodating to the animals needs? If having a service dog is restricted to “home use,” is it worth the investment – in your opinion?

    On the issue of Hippo Therapy, I happen to have a good friend in Pennsylvania who runs a small Hippo Therapy facility. I’ve never asked her the details of the cost, but I do know she has had some great stories of the smiles and joy the kids/adults have had/experienced when they are having a “session” at her place. I’m definitely going to get more information from her and look more into the pro’s and con’s of Hippo Therapy.

    If I didn’t say it clearly enough before – I will now – I truly DO appreciate your comments. You’ve given a real “face” to this story. You shared your experience, which is invaluable. I only wish others would give us the benefit of their experience too. It might give all of us better insight into where the law (e.g. ADA) is still lagging in terms of making necessary accommodations for those it was intended to help. I have to ask myself – as an employer – how would I deal with an employee who had a service dog? Would I be understanding and accommodating – as I should be – if the “practical” issues of having a service dog in the workplace arose? Food for thought – that’s for sure.

    Thanks, Jade. Great stuff! Thanks for making me think a whole lot more about this issue. I hope Mike and others add their thoughts as well. He’s down the hall from my office, so I think I’ll give him a nudge. :-)

    IF you have the time, would love to hear more about your thoughts on some of the issues I’ve raised – who would a service dog work for best? Are some places better than others in making accommodations? ….
    Best …. Brian

  7. JadeNo Gravatar says:

    Thank you for the reply Brian. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the fact that you took the time to think about and understand where I was coming from on the issue. As, you have gathered, I am not against service dogs for children with Autism, but it is not as “easy” as many seem to think, and unfortunatley are quick to jump on the “bandwagan” if you will. Some might be pressured into thinking a service dog is a good idea by a facility, or quick to decide without thinking the whole thing through and researching.

    Service dogs in the workplace and even schools can be beneficial to some, it all comes down to a case by case basis. For example, if person A, B, and C all have MS. Persons A and B have very appparent issues that affect every day living. Person A is able to be a “fit” for a service dog. Person B on the other hand, can not provide for the dog, and is unable to be a “fit” for a service dog. Person C doesn’t have any affects from the MS that affect every day living enough to warrant a service dog.

    I haven’t experienced or heard of any school district or business that is more accommodating. If a person falls under the protection of the ADA and a service dog works for that person, then accomodations must be made to the extent of the ADA and other laws. As you most likely have come across, state and federal laws often clash with each other. I live in a state that has more restrictions on the service dog training, but federal law overides that aspect from what I have found legally.

    In an eight hour period a well trained and qualified service dog shouldn’t have to go out more than twice to relieve themselves, if they have to be releived more often then service work is likely not for them, and may indicate a health issue. The issue is more centered around if the person is physically and mentally able to care for and control the dog, to any extent needed. Sometimes an assistant, whether family member or otherwise, is able to help in some situations. A young Autistic child is most likely not going to be able do what is required to have a service dog in school. If the parents are able and willing to pay for a personal assistant that helps care for the child and the dog and is legally able to be in the school then a service dog might a great option. If the parents are unable or unwilling to do so, then a service dog is not likely to be a good solution. Now, that being said, that doesn’t mean that a dog can’t be helpful at home or in other public situations where the parents can help with the issues that arise. Same goes for others who are disabled.

    People should note though, that a public entity can ask a person with a service dog to leave if the dog is disruptive (like non stop barking, unless the barking is training, which would be addressed in one way or another) or if the dog is acting obviously aggressive.

    I didn’t experience any problems when I had my service dog as far as access, but I have read that hospitals and zoos are sometimes not as understanding, often due to not knowing the law.

    I think you nailed it when you (Brian) used “individualized,” as that is exactly what it comes down to for whom a service dog is proper, and those who are accommodating.

    A service dog is a invaluable assest as I have said before, but the dog and handler must be thought of, and done on a case by case basis.
    If a service dog is a plausible option then it is worth looking into and well worth investment of time and money. Animals can be great asset to the disabled and abled alike.

    If you hear/learn anything from your friend about the Hippo Therapy and are able to share I’m sure others (including myself) would love to hear about it. My experience on Hippo Therapy is limited to the research I had to do for a college paper right before it became better known and understood as a tool to help people, and a little follow up research. I did have a retired thoroughbred (he was not into moving fast, and had allergies to neoprene so had to be retired from racing) so I can see how Hippo Therapy could help. It can also allows for the therapy without having to worry about the care or access issues:) or can be a great supplement to a service dog.

    My motto on things like this: research, research, think it through:)

  8. Mike SandersNo Gravatar says:

    Jade: Thanks for your comments. To try to more fully understand the issue of service dogs, I had the pleasure this week of speaking with a representative of a service dog provider. I’ll be doing a follow-up piece next week that will hopefully address some of your concerns.

    You are right – service dogs aren’t for everyone and there is a lot of give and take that must be considered. No one is saying that service dogs are a panacea, or that service dogs are a perfect solution. But there is an old saying that came to mind in reading your comments — don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. I don’t think it’s jumping on the bandwagon to point out all the good that dogs can do for special needs kids. They aren’t perfect, but in the right circumstances they can be a huge help.

    I look forward to hearing from you after next week’s piece.


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