Dogs have always been coined “man’s best friend.” They are intuitive to human behaviors and needs and have been a welcomed companion in families for centuries. For many families, though, dogs provide more service than just companionship. Service Dogs help children and adults with numerous different special needs all over the world. I recently had the pleasure of speaking with two organizations in the United States because I wanted to learn more about how they train their service dogs; the benefits of having a service dog for different disabilities; and more.
First, I met Judy McDonald who has been a Service Dog Trainer for Little Angels Service Dogs for about two years. She has a service dog herself and “became very fascinated with the training process,” which led to her receiving her Master Service Dog Certification in December of 2015.
“In my opinion, dogs have a wonderful way of speaking to our souls and can help in ways that humans just can’t,” Judy said. “For many disabled people, these service dogs give them a new lease on life.”
People typically associate service dogs with those who are visually impaired, but these dogs benefit people with many different special needs. Little Angels Service Dogs works with trains and places dogs with children and adults who have needs such as: autism, hearing impairment, mobility issues, psychiatric disorders, and seizures. Each Service Dog is trained to specifically provide for each human’s need, regardless of what it is.
Their training program starts all dogs off the same, “with the basics,” Judy said.
“They learn sit and down, and then we build off those to advance tasks. Most of the time training looks like a fun play session. We want the dogs to do what they love and then we just shape their behaviors according to the need of their recipient,” she explained. “We work a lot with scents. With the recipient’s scent, we work with the dog to alert when they smell it. This works for seizure disorders and/or diabetic alerts. Many of our recipients with postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (“POTS”) or a similar medical condition, will work with their dogs to train them to pick up on signs that are related to their specific disability so the dogs can provide critical alerts when needed.
I also spoke with Bradley Carter who has worked with Autistic Service Dogs of America (“ASDA”) for a year and a half. He was hired as a placement specialist because of his background in the autism field. He previously worked as a functional skills trainer, as well as a personal trainer for children and adults on the autism spectrum. The ASDA training program is a little different from Little Angels Service Dogs’ since their service dogs are specifically trained for people who have autism.
“The first two to three months of the dog’s life are spent with our puppy coaches, where they get potty trained and start learning how to walk on a leash. They also start crate training,” Bradley said. “For the next twelve to fourteen months of the dog’s life, they work on basic obedience and getting exposure to many different environments (shopping malls, schools, restaurants, etc.). During this time they are living with a volunteer puppy raiser whom our staff meets with once a month to help with the training and development of the service dog.”
After the general training finishes, the trainers focus on the specific needs of the person the dog will be placed with. Bradley told me, “the last six to eight months of the dogs training is what we call “advanced training” where they live with our staff members and focus on what the person will need, as well as fine tuning any areas they may be struggling with. A lot of times if the dog is having a problem it will be around wildlife or other dogs and we will help them work through those issues with our positive reinforcement training.”
An interesting technique that service dogs are taught to administer for people with autism or post traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”) is deep pressure therapy (“DPT”). DPT is when the dog uses its weight, and sometimes warmth to mitigate a psychiatric symptom, often either as a calming strategy or to minimize disengagement from the world. This type of therapy is also used for autistic children and adults.
“Service dogs can give and receive deep pressure to help calm a person down that can otherwise escalate in stimulating environments,” Bradley said. “Over time the dogs will actually learn when the person is becoming escalated and interrupt them before a meltdown may happen. Dogs in general have a scientifically proven ability to lower blood pressure in humans and can provide many things for the whole family not just the child they are placed with.”
Judy explained that service dogs provide this for people with PTSD, providing them an independence they may not have had in years.
“People with PTSD are, maybe for the first time in years, able to go out in public with a dog they know has their back,” Judy said. “They don’t have to worry about being hypervigilant as their service dog will provide non-protective boundary control. The dog can also provide deep pressure therapy after a flash back or wake up the recipient after a nightmare.”
DPT is just one of the many benefits that families can expect by having a Service Dog. Bradley explained some of the benefits that children and families with autism can expect:
“Every family gets something different from the service dog, however, some of the main benefits are giving the family the confidence to go out in the community whether it is dinner, a concert in the park or just having an easy trip the grocery store. Our tether safety system keeps kids safe, especially if they are a risk for running or eloping; this system also helps build boundaries and foster communication between the child and other family members.
Judy explained further about different disabilities and the benefits families and their loved one’s will receive:
“Mobility dogs can pick up dropped items, brace for balance, open doors and much more,” she said. “Hearing dogs can alert to phone calls, someone at the door, to countless other noises.”
Service dogs provide a great, and sometimes lifesaving support for those who have seizures.
“Our trained dogs can alert their humans minutes before the seizure happens, then dial a special phone programmed to either 911 or a loved one, or (they) physically go get a family member and bring them to their handler who is having or about to have the seizure and stay with them until it is over and not have to say a word,” Judy explained. “This brings relief beyond words to a child’s parents who stay up at night because they never knew when a seizure would come. Or a teenager who can finally go to school or out with friends now that they have their dog. Not to mention the sense of wellbeing the parents have knowing ‘someone’ is always with their child.”
If you or your family are contemplating whether a loved one would benefit a service dog, there are many things to consider. First, look for a program that fits your loved one’s needs and be advised, “if a program offers you a dog in a short amount of time and it sounds too good to be true it just might be,” Judy warned.
Second, the training for your service dog does not end the day they are placed with your family. These dogs need hundreds of hours of training, which usually falls on the parent who becomes the primary trainer. But, with great training, these dogs are an amazing asset for a family with special needs.
Both Judy and Bradley expressed how deeply they love the work they do. Judy said her favorite moments of working with Little Angel Service Dogs is every time a dog gets placed.
“I get chills every time,” she said.
Bradley has many great memories of working with ASDA and placing service dogs with families.
“One that sticks out in my mind,” he said, “(when) we placed a service dog with a family who wasn’t able to go out to dinner and hadn’t been out as a family in almost ten years. After receiving their service dog, they were able to go out to dinner every night for a whole week and have their son sit calmly with his service dog and enjoy his dinner.”
For more information on these organizations, click the links below: