Autism Service Dogs: An Interview with a Parent and Handler
Autism service dogs can change the life of the children they assist, as well as their family's lives. They are trained to calm their handlers, keep them safe and may even help them socialize with their community. Here's an interview with Brandy, a mom who learned about autism service dogs and was able to adopt one into her family to help her son, Xander.
What type of training did your dog go through before she came into your home?
Our dog Lucy was trained in the Prison Pups program run by the National Education for Assistance Dog Services (NEADS). Their dogs are trained in prisons nationwide by non-violent offenders. On the weekends, volunteers called puppy raisers pick up the dogs and assist with their social training. Our dog Lucy was in training for about a year before coming to our home. She is trained as a typical service dog so she can open doors, turn on lights and fetch objects, but she's also tuned in to the social and emotional needs of my oldest son, Xander.
How did you go about adopting your service dog?
We applied in January 2013 after researching to understand if this program was right for us. NEADS requires a vigorous application with medical records and recommendations from doctors, teachers and family members. Once NEADS approved us for a dog, we had to wait for them to find the right one. They chose the right dog for Xander based on his preferences— he wanted a yellow dog — and by his demeanor. Xander can be excitable, so we needed a calm breed.
Did you and your son go through any training before bringing your dog home?
Once Lucy was matched with us, I was required to participate in a two-week training on the NEADS campus in Sterling, MA. The first week was a lot of class work and dog handling. I had to go through a canine first aid class and learn all the commands Lucy has been trained on. I had to practice going in and out of buildings, loading her into and out of vehicles and had to learn how to keep her safe at all times.
The second week was for Xander to come with me. I then had to learn how to handle the dog in tandem with my son. We are a working team. I am leashed to the dog on one side and Xander is on the other. Everywhere we go like that, I am in charge, and had to learn how to maintain all of our safety at all times.
What does your dog do to help your son?
First and foremost, Xander was an eloper. This meant that he could dart out and away from us at any time. I fondly used to call him Houdini as he could escape from your hand or house at any minute. Since it's not a concern now, I can look back and smile, but it was very scary before Lucy. Now, when he is attached to Lucy, he can not run or go anywhere other than where I direct us.
Secondly, Lucy calms him down. When he is having an outburst, Lucy looks to comfort him. Sometimes it's by snuggling with him and sometimes she will just make sure she is near him.
Lastly, she assists Xander in communicating with the outside world. While he can be very verbal and vocal, his socialization skills need assistance. When we are out with Lucy, people are genuinely interested. Xander has learned to tolerate questions and the requests to pet his dog. He can also answer questions and let people know who Lucy is and how she helps him.
Once at a pediatric occupational therapy center, Xander was waiting for his appointment. Xander was ignoring everyone, but on this day, it was very busy. So many kids kept asking to pet his dog. While he would say yes, his attention and eyes were solely on his iPad. While I was checking him in, a father was trying to encourage his son to ask the boy to pet his dog. The little boy said "No, I can't. What if he says no?" Xander looked up, and said, "I won't say no." He got up, took the little boy's hand and brought him to Lucy. He showed him how to pet her and explained that she was a yellow lab, and that she was his special service dog. I was in tears. It was amazing and not possible before Lucy.
Hopefully in the next year or two, Xander will transition to handling Lucy alone. Then her skills will really shine. She is trained to keep him safe, assist him with daily routines and chores, and remain his companion even if he struggles to make friends in the outside world. He will always have her as his best friend.
What do you wish the general public knew about autism service dogs?
First, I wish people knew that not every service dog is a Seeing Eye® dog. In the same spirit, not every person who has a service dog has a visible disability, and it is not okay to ask why a person has a service dog. It is the equivalent of asking someone what medication they are on or what their salary is. We often allow Xander to say that Lucy is his autism service dog because it helps his communication skills. It doesn't mean we are required to tell people that.
Lastly, I would like people to understand that while Xander mostly chooses to allow people to pet Lucy, that it has to be his choice. He is allowed to say no, and I will help him by adding a patch to Lucy's vest that asks people not to pet her. We don't use it often but if we choose to it is typically because Xander is not feeling social that day and we want to respect the social boundaries he is trying to develop and learn about.
How can autism service dogs have a positive impact in the lives of children with autism?
This is such a great question. I believe Lucy has truly helped us. I have seen firsthand how Xander has become more social, and I know he has become safer with Lucy by his side.
With that being said, autism therapy dogs may not be right for every family with a kid on the spectrum. First, it is like having another child. Not just because you have to care for the dog's needs, but because this dog now goes just about everywhere you and your child will go together. Also, there is a very large financial commitment to bring home one of these animals. At first, we were not prepared to realize exactly how costly this venture would be. Through NEADS, at the time, a service dog cost $9,500. We were very lucky that we received lots of help from our community and local organizations, but the financial piece needs to be considered.
Lastly, as a mom of two amazing kids and a brilliant dog, I would also want the parents to be ready emotionally. The process is rigorous. You need to provide previously confidential information about your family, your child's health and your living situation. You need to label and identify every issue you know your child has in order to be selected for a service dog. Seeing it on paper was overwhelming to me. I truly didn't prepare to not only see it all on paper but to actively discuss it with relative strangers.
While those are all words of caution and things I wish I knew before signing up for a service dog, I wouldn't change a thing. Lucy has been an amazing blessing to myself, both my boys, and our entire family. The benefits truly outweigh the additional work that has come with having such a special dog in our lives, and we are truly grateful for her.
Erin Ollila believes in the power of words and how a message can inform—and even transform—its intended audience. Her writing can be found all over the internet and in print, and includes interviews, ghostwriting, blog posts, and creative nonfiction. Erin is a geek for SEO and all things social media. She graduated from Fairfield University with an M.F.A. in Creative Writing. Reach out to her on Twitter @ReinventingErin or learn more about her at http://erinollila.com.