Editor’s Note: This is the third in an occasional series of articles about various types of working dogs in the United States. Previously we spotlighted bomb-sniffing dogs and guide dogs for the vision-impaired. Today, we highlight service dogs for children with autism.
Before Sam was paired with his service dog, simple things like walking through a parking lot became a nightmare for his mother. He would bolt away from his family and run behind the cars pulling into and out of parking spaces.
The youngest of 5 boys, he’d been diagnosed with autism at 18 months, and one of the symptoms is the inability to sense danger. Instead, Sam runs toward it.
Half of all children with autism wander and “bolt” from safe places, according to a study by the Interactive Autism Network. Of these families, 50 percent report that their child went missing long enough to cause significant concern about their safety.
“The older Sam got, the harder it got to take him out in public because he would either throw himself down on the ground and refuse to walk or try to run away from us, which was scary,” says Jennifer Mandell, Sam’s mother.
“Nighttime used to be really stressful for us because Sam would get up at all hours of the night,” says Mandell. She once found him in the kitchen rooting through the utensil drawer (thankfully, the knives were out of reach). Another time, he almost got out of the house through the back door.
“You never knew what could happen. I used to say I would sleep with one eye open. I could hear a pin drop, and it would wake me up.”
The family had to resort to strapping Sam in a wheelchair. “We hated doing it,” says his mother, “because once he was put in the chair, he zoned out and wouldn’t engage with anybody.” Eventually Sam started having meltdowns in the wheelchair.
For a long time, Mandell and her son were prisoners in their own house. She stopped going to her other children’s sports games because she never got to see them. Instead, she would end up in the car with Sam, trying to calm him down.
Then she heard about a program called Heeling Autism and decided to contact them. That phone call turned out to be life-changing.
Michele Brier, director of marking and communication at Guiding Eyes for the Blind, says the reason the dogs are “service dogs” is that they primarily provide safety. “The top cause of death of children with autism is drowning. For a parent at the beach or a park where there’s water, it’s very frightening to be out with a child who bolts.” Autism dogs are trained to stop a child from bolting.
“We had certain dogs that were released from our guide dog program because they were unsuccessful as guides,” says Brier. “Their temperament was fantastic; it just wasn’t the right temperament to be a guide dog. Maybe they didn’t want to be the primary decision maker or take on as much responsibility as a guide dog does every day. So we started looking for other options.”
Caroline Sandler, who’d been training guide dogs for 10 years, started the autism program at Guiding Eyes for the Blind in 2008. Since then, Heeling Autism has placed 61 dogs.
Just as every typical child is different, every child with autism is different, says Brier. “We want to give the children the best dogs for them.” The applicants go through an extensive application and screening process. “It’s a very individualized matching process.”
Heeling Autism also brings the dogs to special needs classrooms to work with kids who have a variety of challenges. This exposes the dogs to children who might move a little differently.
“They’ll get their first experience of dealing with kids who have ‘stims’ — self-stimulating behaviors like flapping, rocking and spinning — and kids who may act in an unpredictable manner,” says Brier.
The dogs are primarily taught to become “anchors” when a child tries to bolt:
- The dog wears a vest, the child wears a belt, and they are tethered together.
- The child holds onto the handle on the back of the dog’s vest as they walk.
- When the child tries to bolt, the dog becomes an anchor, essentially stopping the child from going anywhere.
Heeling Autism sent a dog to Sam’s home to see how he would react. “I was really nervous because Sam always hated dogs,” says Mandell. “But as soon as the yellow Lab walked into the room, Sam instantly sat down. He had this calmness about him.”
Sandler, who’d delivered the dog to the family, suggested they take a walk outside with Sam and the dog.
“My husband and I laughed at each other,” says Mandell. But she was amazed that Sam held onto the dog’s vest. “Sam walked with the dog for 3 blocks, and he never let go or tried running away. It was the first time that he ever walked like that.”
“He’s Like a Different Child Now”
When Sam first got Hagrid, the dog kept waking Mandell in the middle of the night by licking her arm. She thought Hagrid needed to go out. “But after a couple of nights, I realized that Hagrid was waking me up to let me know that Sam was awake,” says Mandell.
When she asked Heeling Autism how they had trained the dog to do that, they told her they hadn’t. “Some dogs just figure things out on their own,” says Brier. Hagrid sleeps in the same bed as Sam, and he sleeps through the night now.
“He’s like a different child now than he used to be,” says Mandell. “I remember the first time in forever that I went to see one of my other kid’s games. Sam just sat next to his dog, and I knew he wasn’t going anywhere. I’ll never forget it because my son got a hit. He came off the field and said, ‘Did you see it?’ And I actually did!”
The family has been able to go to all those places they couldn’t before. “We’ve gone to Disneyworld and Fleet Week. We went to a Devils hockey game. We go to the zoo and the aquarium. We can all go as a family, and Sam is so much happier.”
Here’s a video slideshow that Mandell put together of Sam and Hagrid:
For a child who doesn’t have a lot of friends, dogs can be great icebreakers. “For kids that are verbal, it’s an opportunity for them to answer some simple questions that they’ve practiced,” says Brier, “and to have that practice and social interaction.’“
When people stop to pet the dog, the attention shifts from the “different” kid. Instead, for the first time he’s just a cute kid with a cute dog. Remarkable things can then happen. “Sam’s starting to become verbal,” says Mandell. “He now has a few words that he says.”
A lot of recent research has focused on the use and benefits of animals in therapy. Any animal has the ability to facilitate reactions that other people and other therapies cannot, says Brier. “It’s not only that these dogs are keeping these children safe. They’re providing this overwhelming amount of support that nothing else in their lives has been able to do.”
The dog imparts such a great sense of calm that the child can get through a doctor’s appointment or a therapy session or sleep through the night. When Sam has a meltdown, Hagrid will lie down next to him. “Nine times out of 10, Sam will start petting Hagrid’s fur and that will calm him down,” says Mandell.
The family never used to go out to eat together before they got their dog. “The first thing we did when we got Hagrid was go out to eat. Sam kicked off his shoes and socks and rubbed Hagrid’s back. That calmed him, and he sat through the meal. One of my other sons said, ‘Isn’t it amazing how 1 life has changed 7?’”
“Hagrid has just been a miracle for us. I don’t know where we would be if we didn’t have him.”