Dogs Heel Autism

We’ve all heard of seeing-eye dogs, those protective pooches that help blind people navigate the intricacies of daily life. These service dogs require an ability to make split-second decisions and be assertive with their owners. But during the course of training, some dogs just don’t exhibit the right temperament necessary for guide work. These dogs are often released from training and placed into homes as pets.

Guiding Eyes for the Blind in Yorktown Heights, NY has found a use for these gentler-tempered dogs: to help children with autism. Heeling Autism is their pilot program to provide additional training for these gentler dogs to work specifically with autistic children, as well as their families.

Several years ago Caroline McCabe-Sandler, the Heeling Autism Program Director at Guiding Eyes, went to a conference for dog trainers. While there she heard a woman speak about how she had gotten a service dog for her son with autism. McCabe-Sandler was not only moved, she was also intrigued. She spoke with the woman afterwards, then met her son, then met the dog. Something clicked. McCabe-Sandler realized this would be a perfect fit for the rejected guide dogs.

According to McCabe-Sandler, dogs undergoing training generally fall into three tiers:

  • Guide dogs, which must show strong initiative, have confidence, and make tough decisions, going above and beyond what their handler’s ask of them. These dogs are highly skilled and often end up as seeing-eye dogs.
  • Working dogs, which have an acute prey instinct. These dogs want to run, sniff and track and are well-suited for rescue work, bomb detection, and other public service roles.
  • Rejects, which are more passive. They don’t have the same amount of confidence required to make decisions independent of their handlers and are often put up for adoption as regular pets. These are the dogs that Heeling Autism trains to work with autistic children.

Don’t let the third tier fool you. The additional training, called “customized situational method,” is quite extensive. These dogs must know “exactly where to stand, move, and hold their tails,” said McCabe-Sandler. The reason? These dogs don’t get their commands from the children and parents are usually too pre-occupied with caring for their kids to give detailed direction. They must be highly functional so that they can navigate common situations like going to the grocery or getting in and out of a car without getting in the child’s way.

The dogs are also trained to interrupt certain repetitive autistic behaviors. One child had issues with hand flapping. When the child’s behavior triggered, her dog would stand nearby. Instead of flapping, she was suddenly stroking the dog, anchoring her and bringing her “back into our world,” according to McCabe-Sandler.

Most importantly is the safety of the child. These dogs are trained to prevent the child from running off. Many autistic children have limited impulse control - “they see something and go for it.” Children with elopement issues will bolt into traffic, jump into water, or get into other dangerous situations. The child and dog are tethered together not only so that the dog can anchor the child.

So far the program has had some remarkable results. Just ask Melissa Soffler. Melissa’s 8 year-old son Matthew is autistic and has elopement issues. At least, he did before Dorothy, a black Labrador, came into their lives.

Before Dorothy came onto the scene, Melissa couldn’t take Matthew to the grocery because he would run off. At 75 pounds, he was too big for the shopping cart and Melissa had “to keep him in a bear hug to keep him from running.” She hired nannies and babysitters to watch Matthew while she ran simple errands. But now Matthew can go anywhere with Dorothy by his side. Hershey Park. The Radio City Christmas Spectacular. Baseball games, restaurants, Florida. Dorothy even goes on a trampoline and slides with him.

According to Melissa, getting involved with the program was “a complete fluke.” She knew rejected guide dogs could be adopted as pets and put her name on a waiting list. McCabe-Sandler reached out to her about Heeling Autism and the Sofflers began an intense application process.

“It’s serious,” said McCabe-Sandler. Families have to work hard and be committed to having a specially trained dog. McCabe-Sandler personally interviews families in their homes. “Everyone must be there. Everyone must want a dog, value a dog.” Even though it’s a family dog, “it’s really the child with autism’s dog.”

McCabe-Sandler gave the Sofflers a green light. Melissa recalls her saying, “this would be a perfect fit.” But it wasn’t easy. Melissa had to go to the Guiding Eyes center for a week of her own training to learn how to handle the dog in different places like playgrounds, malls and restaurants. Melissa said it was “an eye-opening experience” for her. But it was hard on Matthew. During the week apart, he wrote her a letter saying, “Dear Mommy, I want you to come back home. I miss you. I want mom to come back today. It’s not fair. It’s not my dog.”

Matthew’s tune changed almost immediately. Melissa saw that Dorothy’s ability to keep him from bolting “worked beautifully.” She could finally take him to the grocery, a simple act that many parents take for granted. But she “didn’t anticipate anything emotionally.” Six months later, however, Melissa saw an amazing transformation taking place in Matthew.

“He has much more confidence,” Melissa said. When Dorothy is around, he stutters less. He reaches out and talks to other kids about her, saying “This is my dog Dorothy. She keeps me safe. She’s 4 years old.” He has even begun nurturing her, tucking her in at night. “Come along, Dodo,” Matthew will say when it’s her bedtime, taking her into his room where she sleeps. He has even given her a time out when she was out in the yard too long playing.

“I didn’t expect them to bond the way they have. It’s always been about Matthew. It’s 24/7 about Matthew. He takes it all in, but he never gave anything off… he’s finally caring about somebody else,” Melissa said.

Before Dorothy came into their lives, Melissa was constantly worried about Matthew’s future. “We tried so many things. We tried everything but swimming with the dolphins. The diet. Every activity. This is the first thing that worked. It really changed our lives,” she said. Seeing Matthew’s daily growth has helped her stop worrying so much.

Guiding Eyes trains about 165 guide dogs each year. Of those, about 12 go on to perform service work and about 12 go on to the Heeling Autism program.

The program is not a cheap one. Each Heeling Autism dog costs Guiding Eyes approximately $45,000 throughout the course of its training. For families that receive the dogs, they are free of charge. But some might say they are priceless

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