Autism Service Dogs bring the comfort, safety, and tender compassion to the lives of their working (human) partners. This is working pair Claudia Bolle, and her Autism Service Dog, Grace.
Kathryn A. Kahler
If pressed to put a monetary value on them, their trainers might say they are worth $25,000 or more. But most people who know service dogs – either from training them or living with them – consider them priceless.
Shannon Shea Becker, an IT specialist in the Department of Natural Resources, is able to look at them from both perspectives. In her spare time, she is the Director of Development for Custom Canines Service Dog Academy in Madison and volunteers five to 30 hours a week to the organization. She helps train and socialize puppies and conducts fundraisers for the 501(c)(3) nonprofit. Her house is also home to Susie, a golden retriever home companion to Beckerís stepdaughter who has autism.
"Some people call them priceless," says Becker. "For a family who has an autistic child, there is no amount you can put on that security of knowing that your child isnít going to be able to bolt into the street, or bolt away from you in a crowded venue. Our daughter doesnĎt have that issue but Susie helps calm her so she can better focus on the task at hand."
Service dogs arenít just born that way, although thatís part of it. At Custom Canines, the puppies are donated by breeding partners who have a proven track record of providing dogs with the health, lineage and temperament that make a good service dog. Puppies are evaluated by a veterinarian and academy staff to make sure there are no health problems, then placed with volunteer puppy-raisers who agree to provide food, shelter, basic training, and basic veterinary care for the puppy for usually about one year. "Donations by the puppyraisers are tax deductible," says Becker. "But the larger payment for them is getting to take part in placing and training of a dog that could change someoneís life."
During that year or more with puppy-raisers, dogs go through basic obedience and public access training. Then, Custom Canines, as its name implies, customizes the training to fit the needs of its eventual owner. Some will become guide dogs for the visually impaired, which requires the most extensive training in traffic obedience and navigation.
A physical needs service dog can take almost as long to train. These dogs help people with illnesses like multiple sclerosis, or with physical handicaps that require assistance with tasks like taking their shoes on or off, turning doorknobs, and opening or shutting drawers. A dog well-suited for these tasks takes direction well and has strong retrieving ability. Autism service dogs –trained primarily to assist children –donít require as much training. They donít need to be as focused or driven as guide dogs, but need to have a very soft nature."They need to enjoy children and tolerate a child getting in their face and in their coat," says Becker. "They need to be mellow, yet able to react to situations they are trained to handle."
One of those situations is when a child bolts. Autistic children who display this behavior, can be tethered to their service dog which is trained to drop to the ground and brace himself at the parentís command.
Who can get a dog?
Custom Canineís mission is to provide dogs at no cost, to individuals and amilies with visual, physical or behavioral needs that will allow them to live an enhanced life. They work throughout the Midwest and have placed dogs as far away as Colorado.
The organizationís website (customcanines.org) has an application. A small fee covers the cost for staff to travel for a home visit. Once approved, the staff works closely with the family or applicant to place the dog best fitted for their needs. They take clients and dogs on field trips, do test runs and make sure that clients know the dogís skill sets and how to command them.
Want to help?
Visit customcanines.org to find out how to donate time or dollars. Volunteers donít need to have experience or formal training.
Thereís another way Becker says people can help.
"Donít be afraid to approach someone who has a service dog," she advises. "Donít run up and just pet the dog without asking, but thereís nothing wrong with asking questions."
Kathryn A. Kahler is a staff writer for Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine.