Every since Mathew received his diagnosis of Autism I have been researching constantly. There are so many ways to help out a kid on the spectrum but a lot of them are considered alternative methods and therefore not covered by insurance or recognized by health professionals as being extremely helpful.
Thus far we have been blessed with doctors who were ok with trying some of the alternative ways of dealing with the problems. One way is to get a specially trained service dog. Typically people think of service dogs as being for the blind but you can actually train a service dog to do a lot more than helping out someone who is blind.
What can a service dog do for an Autistic child? The service dog can be specially trained in tracking down your child. Got a runner? The service dog can scent track your child and help find them after they have taken off. Got a wanderer? The service dog can be trained to walk around with your child tethered to the dog to make things a little harder for you little wanderer to wander. The dog can also be trained to down on command and stay down even if the child tries to drag the dog across the floor. If needed, the dog can also be trained to assist in stabilizing your child as they walk. This can give a child more confidence to move around a little more independently. The service dogs can also be trained to “lap”. This is when the dog puts their head in the child’s lap for behavior disruption or lays across the child to provide the deep pressure that many kids need and in the case of Big M, seeks. The service can also be trained to work in a team of three. They will obey your commands like they come from the child. You can walk with the dogs leash while the child is tethered to the dog. Finally, dogs have been proven to be very therapeutic and truly are man’s best friend. They can be of service just by being a friend to your child.
We found an organization called 4 Paws For Ability. They are one of few organizations who will train Autism service dogs.They also train seizure alert dogs if needed. For us at this time they are the best ones to go through even though there are many other organizations and even some that are closer to us than Ohio. The best part about 4 Paws? They do not have a minimum age. So even though Big M was just 3 when we first started the process they still accepted him. Others who will place a dog with children have a minimum age requirement as high as 8 or 10 years old.
Another consideration? The money. A service dog is NOT cheap by any stretch of the imagination. The community has a hard time understanding this but the dog has costs. Being specially trained, vet bills, food bills, special equipment and it all adds up FAST. On the website 4 Paws states that it costs them over $20,000 to train and place a service dog. Somebody, somewhere has to foot that bill. The unique approach 4 Paws takes is that you become a volunteer for them and fund-raise for 4 Paws. You raise $13,000 and they raise the rest through their fundraising efforts.
Be careful of those who claim free dogs. The wait list is usually pretty lengthy, averaging 5 years. I have come across some others who claim that you don’t have to do any fundraising! That typically means that it will be coming out of your pocket though. My biggest point here is to your research. While 4 Paws might not be the organization for you, be sure to thoroughly research all of the others and know what you are getting yourself into. With 4 Paws the wait time is up to you. Once the $13,000 has been acquired, either by you paying it or by fundraising, then you have 1 year to 18 months wait until you can go meet your child’s service dog.
This is another things about 4 Paws that I really liked. They do not choose or train a service dog for you until you have a class date a.k.a. have finished your fundraising. Then the dog is trained specifically to your kid. If you need a tracking dog they train the dog to track your child’s scent. They show the dog video of you child and family to acquaint the dog to your voices and any strange noises that may be commonplace in your house. That service dog becomes so used to your family. It isn’t a cookie cutter that you then have to spend excess time getting used to your child. There is always a transition but it doesn’t have to be hard.
Now comes another drawback many see to 4 Paws. When it comes time to take your service dog home, they don’t deliver and you can’t just show up sign the papers and leave. You have to attend a 2 week class with your dog and you have to pass a graduation test. Yes, this may mean lengthy hotel stays while you are going through the training. I say that it is worth it to leave with the confidence that your dog can do their job and that you know how to properly handle them.
If you would like to know more about Big M and his life with Autism and efforts to fund-raise for his service dog then feel free to check out his Facebook page. If you would like to help us meet our new furry friend then check out the Firstgiving page we have set up. The money goes directly to 4 Paws and is tax deductible. Even if you can’t donate please consider sharing our story and the 4 Paws organization. There are at least a dozen families who are trying to raise money right now. The more we can spread the word and raise awareness for Autism Service Dogs the better off our children will be in the future.