Service dog

The Sweetest Thing On Four Paws Is The Effect Dogs Have On Autistic Kids

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The dog that Angel Yaklin credits with encouraging her autistic son to talk more has brown eyes, black fur and a working knowledge of German.

Sookie, a German shepherd, sat when she heard “sitz” and laid down when Yaklin said “platz.” The “doggy push-ups” were part of a class in a Woodruff Road church gym, where Sookie and four other canines were learning to help autistic children.

Demand outstrips supply so thoroughly that the Greenville nonprofit, Dogs for Autism, has a waiting list 300 families deep and expects to graduate six dogs this year, said Program Director Julie Nye.

Yaklin said her 4-year-old son, who was non-verbal as recently as August, now comes home and says, “Hello, Sookie!”

Angel Yaklin participates in a training class with Sookie at Advent United Methodist Church in Simpsonville.

“It’s the sweetest thing in the world,” she said recently. “It’s only been about 20 days, but so far it has been an awesome experience.”

Dogs for Autism has begun a push to raise money in hopes of hiring more trainers to help satisfy the demand, Nye said. Families are charged nothing to take the dogs home.

A unanimous vote by Mauldin City Council allowed dogs in parks by special exception, helping clear the way for a fund-raising event that would involve dogs launching themselves into a 29,000-gallon pool.

While some children become buddies with their dogs, trainers in Dogs for Autism focus on teaching the canines to keep their human companions out of harm’s way, she said.

The dogs are shown how to use their bodies to block children from bolting, a common problem with autism, Nye said. When children do run off or tuck themselves into a hiding spot, the dogs can help sniff them out, she said

Dogs use their noses and tongues to nudge children’s hands away from light sockets and other potential dangers, Nye said.

They bark to alert parents of trouble, she said.

To the children, the dog becomes a “furry tattle tale,” Nye said. But making the dog the bad guy helps parents who are constantly saying “don’t” go to their children with positive messages, she said.

“It’s a real balance changer in the parent-child relationship,” Nye said.

The dogs undergo some of their training in parents’ homes, and some in the gym at Advent United Methodist Church.

Dogs are trained with German commands to help prevent confusion when they go into the real, English-speaking world. They learn to stay on task, even with distractions.

As Yaklin walked Sookie around the gym, Nye threw a set of keys that jangled to the floor nearby. The dog barely looked.

Most of the dogs are a breed of German shepherd with herding instincts that rival those of a collie, Nye said.

Scott McDaniel of Simpsonville has one of the program’s few Labradors, Henry.

McDaniel said when the family leaves the house, their youngest child, age 5, must be watched constantly by either him or his wife. He hopes Henry will help free up a hand.

“The goal would be to make the dog sit and have a tether between the dog and the child so the child cannot run off,” McDaniel said.

Dogs for Autism has graduated 38 dogs, most since 2006, Nye said. About two years and at least $15,000 goes into training each one of them, she said.

The program employs one trainer and contracts with three others, while depending on volunteers to help with training and giving the dogs a place to live until they are placed with families, Nye said.

Philip Harris, a teacher at HOPE Academy, said he has seen his students leave the classroom tense and come back calm after a session with dogs.

His students are in grades 7-12 and most have Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism characterized by difficulties in social situations, he said.

One girl who didn’t want to go out in public now attends church more regularly and has even gone to events at the BI-LO Center thanks to the help of her dog, Harris said.

“They don’t have to worry about screwing up, saying something that somebody’s going to get mad about,” Harris said.

One of the group’s volunteers, Marty Fiorito, brought an energetic German shepherd named Scarlett to the church gym for class.

Training a dog to help autistic children isn’t much different from teaching it to fetch a pair of shoes or walk around a show ring, he said. While the tasks are different, the techniques are the same, Fiorito said.

“A dog is like a baby,” said Fiorito, president of the Dog Obedience Club of Greenville. “You have to treat it like a little kid.”

Most parents who say they want a dog don’t understand how much work they have to put into them, Nye said. In addition to classes, parents need to learn to be consistent to keep dogs on task, Nye said.

“They think they’re bringing home Lassie,” she said. “They’re not.”

Ongoing training makes having a dog the equivalent of adding an extracurricular activity to a child’s schedule, Nye said.

Dogs for Autism maintains ownership of its dogs and reserves the right to take them back if they end up spending all their time in a back yard doghouse or are mistreated, Nye said.

The Mauldin event that would raise money for the group has been scheduled for April 19-21 and would be hosted by Palmetto Dock Dogs at Sunset Park. Spectators would be asked for $2 donations.


Autism Service Dogs: A New Breed Of Love

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Matthew wrote a touching speech about his service dog and delivered it to his class. We wanted to share his speech with you.- via

Tanners 2nd birthday pic

What kind of animal is yellow, always has a wet nose, is very nice,
gets to ride in the family van and sleeps right beside me in my room?
If you guessed my dog Tanner than your right!  Mr. S., Mrs.
S. and fellow classmates, today I am going to talk about the dog
breed of a Labrador as well as my pet dog Tanner.  I love Tanner.  He
is my best friend.  Tanner is a boy dog and is a Yellow Lab.

Labradors came from Newfoundland.  Labradors are sometimes called
Labs for short.  Labs have short hair and can have black or yellow or
chocolate colored fur.  Labs are actually a type of gun dog.  They
have webbed paws. And have an otter shaped curved tale.  This helps
them swim.   A long time ago fishermen used labs for getting fish
nets.  The dogs would swim and pull the nets to the boats from the
water.  Labradors are the most popular breed of dog in many countries
including Canada.   Labs have lots of energy and love to swim, play
catch and fetch. They are good with young children, old people, and
protect people.   They are also used as therapy dogs to help people.
Tanner is special because he makes me feel better when I am sad.  He
lets me hug him anytime I want.  Before Tanner I would have to sleep
alone in my room because I have no brothers.  Now I don’t have to
sleep alone anymore because Tanner sleeps right beside me.  He is like
a brother.    I feed Tanner 2 times a day.  I put water in his food
because that’s the way tanner likes his dog food.   I also help to
brush Tanner’s fur so he always looks clean and shinny.  His favorite
treat is dried liver…Yuk!   I play hide and seek with tanner in the
house.  I will hide with a piece of liver and my mom will tell Tanner
to go find Matthew.   Tanner always finds me no matter where I hide,
even when I hide behind the couch!     I like to run with Tanner
around the house outside.  His favorite toy is his red rope ball.  I
always kick it for him and he runs and gets it.  I give Tanner a piece
of an antler to chew on in the house to help keep his teeth clean.
Tanner likes to sleep a lot in the house on his big brown pillow in
the living room.   Tanner always waits by the door for me to come home
from school.    Tanner is extra special because he is a service dog.
He can go into stores and restaurants with me.  He has to wear a
special jacket and has to be very good.  I get to hold onto his leash.
You have to be very smart to be a service dog.  If you want a dog for
a pet I would tell you to get a yellow lab!  Labs are the best.  I
would never trade Tanner for any other pet.  He is my special dog.  I
am glad he likes his new home with me.  Thank you for listening.

Tanners 2nd birthday

Autism And Service Dogs: Perfect Companions

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Four Paws for Autism: Finding a dog for Levi

VIGO CO., Ind. (WTHI) – One of the first set of hands to hold a newborn is his mother’s.

Over the years, those hands let go more often as the child becomes independent: taking first steps, first day of school and first day of college to name a few.

But for parents of autistic children, that can’t always happen.

One local mother is using her two hands and your kind donations to make sure her son can have four paws and a sense of freedom.

7-year-old Levi Walker loves to run.


Levi Walker, 7, is a fun-loving, energetic kid who loves the freedom of running around without worry; however, due to his form of autism, his mother is working with an organization to get him a four-legged friend to help keep him safe.

If it were up to him, there’d be no boundaries, but there are.

His family has spent many hours putting up fencing to keep Levi from wandering off.

But that doesn’t mean he hasn’t tried pushing the limits.

“I like to say we are a step ahead of Levi…Levi’s always a step ahead of us,” said Levi’s mother, Amy.

Levi’s mother said the family has tried everything from clip locks to spring locks and now combination locks, all to keep Levi from running off.

“In our family, it doesn’t matter if I’m standing right there. If he wants to bolt, if he can figure a lock out, he’s going to be gone,” said Amy.

That’s a big problem, because Levi has a non-verbal form of autism.

He doesn’t speak and his brain doesn’t process information as quickly as other people. So if he took off, finding him could be very difficult.

“Between everything that goes along with autism: the wandering, the behaviors—just anxiety in general—it’s kind of like ‘Okay how can we alleviate this for Levi” said Amy.

So Amy decided to find a solution, not only to give her peace of mind, but also to encourage Levi’s growing need for independence.

After a lot of research on the Internet, she kept coming back to the site 4 Paws for Ability . It’s a non-profit group, based in Ohio that trains service dogs for children with disabilities. And more specifically, it’s started training dogs for children with autism.

“4 Paws eliminates a lot of the waiting list that other agencies have, by allowing their families to fundraise part of what it would cost to train a service dog,” said Amy.

The non-profit said training a dog costs around $22,000 and asks each family to come up with $13,000.

It’s a goal the Walker family knows could take awhile to reach, but what this dog will give back to their family will be worth it.

“When Levi is upset, if I try to interrupt, if I try to get in his space, it just escalates and makes it so much worse, where the service dog will be able to come and, if nothing else, just place his head on Levi’s lap,” Amy said.

After reaching their goal, the Walker family will head to the 4 Paws complex for 11 days of intensive training, including learning a skill called tracking.

Should Levi ever get away from his parents or home, the dog will be able to find him more quickly by tracking his scent.

“It’s going to give me a little bit of comfort knowing that there’s another option to keep Levi safe,” said Amy.

As the mother of an autistic son, Amy said that means a lot.

Hopefully soon, a set of 4 paws will be working right alongside those human hands to make sure Levi remains a happy and healthy kid.

You can help Levi reach his $13,000 goal by attending a fundraiser coming up Tuesday night from 6 to 9 p.m. at the Bouncin Barn in Terre Haute.

The cost is $5 per child.

During those three hours, half of all the admissions will go to 4 Paws for Levi.

Also, if you can’t attend, but would like to help Levi, Amy has created a Facebook page documenting their journey called 4 Paws for Levi .

Autism Service Dogs: Providing A New Leash on Life

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For many children on the Spectrum, having a pet may help them focus, if even for a short duration, on tasks such as feeding and daily care.  It also offers them an opportunity to learn about animals and their environments.  Service dogs offer autistic children a physical connection, which they may be lacking despite school and other therapies; service dogs provide a constant, calming and nonjudgemental companion in the often hectic world of autism.  I urge you to support service animal providers in your area.  -Ed

Claudia Bolle, 7, hugs her service dog Hanna on her bed after a full day at Lakewood School. Claudia is tethered to the dog throughout the school day, which a has a calming effect on her and makes her day more manageable. She is autistic.


TWIN LAKES — Seven-year-old Claudia Bolle, whose severe autisic impulses caused her to dangerously bolt from one place to another, has a new leash on life.

Now, tethered to Hanna, an autism service dog, Claudia is able to remain calm in public and attend to the world around her.

“I must admit I was skeptical at first, doubting that our little spitfire would tolerate being tethered to anything for one second,” her mother Charlotte said. “To my amazement, not only was she compliant and willing, she was thrilled to do it.”

Trips to the grocery store, a restaurant or a playground — once a source of fear and stress — are now not only possible, but enjoyable.

Claudia wears a small vest that has a hook ring in the front, which is attached by a short leash to Hanna’s harness. A parent holds the dog’s leash. If Claudia tries to flee, Hannah drops flat to the ground and provides gentle, but strong resistance.

“I can’t explain it, but in situations where she would previously fight and resist, throwing herself in the floor or fighting to get away, she is now eagerly hooking herself up to Hanna,” Charlotte said.

“Claudia seems to understand that this dog is helping her control her impulses and allowing her so many opportunities that were previously impossible.”

A new concept

Charlotte said it was during a fit of despair in a park last summer that a total stranger told her about autism service dogs, a relatively new concept.

“It was supposed to be a fun outing for us,” Charlotte recalled, as Claudia had joined a special-needs baseball team and was excited about her first game.

“But, instead of playing baseball, she gave into her impulsive nature and decided to run away. After chasing her for nearly an hour in 95-degree heat, a stranger approached me and asked if I had any idea how an autism service dog could change my life.”

Summertime is always difficult for “kids on the spectrum,” she said, adding her focus at the time was on providing fun opportunities for Claudia, her brother Anthony, 8, and sister Julia, 2. But the idea of a service dog stayed in the back of her mind.

“As a stay-at-home mother, I had envisioned a fun-filled summer with my children, but by July I had long since put away the zoo pass, letting go of that fantasy and succumbing to the reality that leaving the house with her, alone, was simply no longer an option,” she said.

“The lack of structure being out of school — and in our case shortened therapy time — was proving to provoke Claudia’s mischievous side, and I could no longer handle her meltdowns and constant attempts to flee in public.”

The breaking point

Charlotte said she and her husband Tony continued to provide opportunities for the family to enjoy life.

“We always made a point to do it anyway,” Charlotte said. “Even though it would end in tears. ”

Claudia, diagnosed with autism at age 4, is growing in both strength and determination and has no regard for her safety.

“Claudia usually ended up being stuffed into a toddler’s stroller just for her safety and frankly, our sanity,” she said. “I decided to research autism service dogs and found that like most things that are helpful for kids with autism, it came with a hefty price tag.”

The dogs cost between $10,000 and $20,000, and there is usually a one- to two-year wait. The family couldn’t afford it, she thought.

Then came a moment that changed her mind.

“It was a late evening in July, and we were headed down to the lake to watch fireworks,” Claudia said. “She darted off toward the road without a care in the world.”

Traffic was quickly approaching, and they went running and screaming after her. Family friend Tom Blair grabbed Claudia just in time.

“It was then that I knew in my heart we had to have a service dog,” Charlotte said.

Finding Hanna

Night after night, Claudia and Tony searched the Internet for organizations that provide autism service dogs.

“I would tell them our story, pleading for a shortened wait time and making promises that I would find the money some how, some way to pay them, and the response was always the same,” she said.

Then, one search turned up information on a new group founded in Madison in January called Custom Canines.

“Not only did they not have a waiting list at that time, they had a trained dog ready for placement, and get this — they didn’t charge,” she said.

The not-for-profit organization brought Hanna to their home and provided the training.

Charlotte said Hanna seemed to intuitively understand that this was her job and “Claudia was ‘her girl.’”

The first test

Soon after Hanna arrived three months ago, the boys next door had a lemonade stand.

“I hooked her up to Hanna and brought her over there,” Tony said, adding Anthony was there helping too. “She stayed for over an hour, sat with the other kids, and even at one point I walked away and Hanna’s presence kept her there with the other kids.

With Hanna, the family’s annual trip to the pumpkin patch was the most enjoyable one yet. Claudia was even able to temporarily go untethered for an activity and willingly hooked herself back up to Hanna when she was done.

“She is just peaceful and able to enjoy herself,” Charlotte said.

Anthony said he is happy his sister can now come and watch him play sports and said he enjoys helping take care of Hanna — a big part of owning a service dog.

“I like to play ball, take her for walks and pet her,” he said. “She helps Claudia so much.”

School helps Claudia, Hanna

While Claudia attends second grade at Lakewood School in Twin Lakes in western Kenosha County, Hanna spends most of the day under a desk and tends to snore.

If it wasn’t for an occasional shift of position, you might not even know Hanna was in the class. While it seems Hanna isn’t doing anything as she lies contently under Claudia’s desk, tolerating the 7-year-old’s busy feet, the black labrador is actually helping Claudia stay in her seat and attend to her work.

“It is a miracle,” said special education aide Amie Keske. “It has helped us both having Hanna here. It keeps Claudia grounded and calm.”

Keske, who was recently hired by the district, said she was a little nervous when she learned the student she would be working with came with another helper.

“I have studied and have been trained to work with kids with autism, but I had never heard of an autism service dog and had no training in working with one,” Keske said.

School willing to help

Claudia got Hanna three months ago, and her parents said the district was surprisingly willing to help them integrate the service dog into the school.

“Everything I read about service dogs at school said you had better get your gloves on and prepare for a fight,” Charlotte said.

“In a time when schools are not willing to make such a commitment, the administration was willing to hear us out and lay the groundwork,” Tony added.

Administrator Joseph Price put together a policy and contract for School Board approval, and Claudia’s parents helped the school prepare by providing the training for two special education aides and the supplies (such as rugs and a kennel). The family further helps by cleaning on Fridays.

Providing security

“I feel so much more comfortable during the day at work knowing they have this tool to control Claudia’s autistic impulses in order for her to have a true educational and social experience,” Tony said.

Speidel said notes were sent to perspective students in the class to make sure their child would be comfortable around the dog and is not allergic.

“She’s part of the class,” the teacher said.

New organization helps family

Hanna came to the Bolles family from Custom Canines Service Dog Academy, a new not-for-profit organization based in Madison.

The organization, formed in January, has already placed nine dogs at no cost with people who are visually impaired, need mobility assistance, or have autism, said founder Nicole Meadowcroft. Another 20 dogs are in training, and a waiting list of people needing the dogs is growing.

Meadowcroft, who began to lose her eyesight in high school and uses a guide dog herself, said the demand for dogs to assist people who have autism is high.

“The autism program has just taken off,” she said. “We exist solely on public donations and support from people with big hearts who believe in our mission of providing dogs free of charge to people with diverse impairments and disabilities.”

Specially trained

Hanna, born in December 2010, was donated to Custom Canines by Anthem Labradors, a breeder in Harvard, Ill., and was trained by the Morga family in Beloit.

The organization trains each service dog to meet the special and unique needs of each client. Placement training with each client takes place in the comfort of the home and around the community.

“We are desperately in need of volunteers to train puppies,” Meadowcroft said.

Trainers lay the foundation the puppy needs to become a dependable companion. They teach the puppy good manners, socialize it to many different environments and teach the dog basic commands.

“We need people who can train the puppies until they start formal harness and obedience training, and skill-specific training,” she said.

Relying on donations

The organization also accepts monetary donations to help cover the cost of food, training equipment, veterinarian bills, crates, vests for the dogs, fuel, leashes and training classes.

Meadowcroft said other non-profit organizations that charge upward of $30,000 for the dogs, do so to recoup the cost it takes to care for and train the dogs.

“Are they worth it? Absolutely,” she said.

How to help

Monetary donations are accepted. Checks made payable to the organization can be mailed to:

Custom Canines Service Dog Academy

6610 Fieldwood Road

Madison, WI 53718

For more information on making a donation, becoming a puppy trainer or obtaining a service dog, call 608-444-9555.

Good dog! | USA WEEKEND

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Seeing Eye dogs were just the beginning. Today’s service dogs smell spikes in blood sugar, relate to autism, soothe trauma. Meet America’s caregiver canines.

The Rittinger family of Savage, Minn., is less frantic these days.

The blood sugar spikes and dives of Megan, 9, who has diabetes, are monitored minute by minute, so problems are instantly detected and addressed. Her brothers, Justin, 11, and Jacob, 9, both autistic, are coping better.

Thank two dogs, says mom Gina Rittinger.

Pip, a spirited 8-pound papillon service dog trained by 4 Paws for Ability of Xenia, Ohio, barks when Megan’s blood sugar swerves, even in the middle of the night. And Labrador retriever Fern, trained by 4 Paws for autism assistance, constantly watches for signs that Justin is spiraling into distress. When he does, Fern presses tightly against him “to provide comfort and interrupt the cycles,” Gina says. “Justin tells her things he can’t express to us.” Jacob, who ran when in the throes of an episode and lashed out when grown-ups stopped him, doesn’t resist when Fern halts him with a tether. Moreover, Fern realizes Jacob isn’t comforted by her body press, so she doesn’t do it with him. “The [boys’] meltdowns are much less intense with Fern here,” Gina says. “Our home is less chaotic. The dogs are doing their jobs and giving us all a sense of calmness.”

Thousands of service dogs at work

Pip and Fern are among thousands of dogs trained to help humans in ways unimagined a decade ago. They warn bipolar people when their body chemistry goes awry, alert epileptics that a seizure is coming, help people with Alzheimer’s keep their balance and stay calm, and warn highly allergic people of harm.

Dogs’ storied noses — they are at least 1,000 times more sensitive than humans’ — explain much of that, experts say. They smell the tiniest shifts in body chemistry or a minuscule particle of an allergen like peanuts, and they are trained to respond.

And yet, most people who have service dogs say the animals do more than what they’re trained to do. It’s the stuff of miracles.

“There’s training,” says Karen Shirk, founder of 4 Paws, which has placed hundreds of dogs with kids who have disabilities, and “there’s also things the dogs do that no one can really explain.” Take the child with epilepsy who was assigned a seizure dog “trained to interrupt the seizure behaviors.” The child never had another seizure in the many years she had the dog; when the animal died, seizures resumed. “Nobody knows why.”

Unraveling a dog’s ability to help

Some of what service dogs bestow comes because “as dogs have evolved with us, they’ve become very adept at picking up cues about our behaviors,” says Alan Beck, director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University’s School of Veterinary Medicine.

He finds it unsurprising that service dogs “evolve into being better partners as the person and dog spend more time and experiment together.” What needs study: the “specific mechanisms” of animals’ ability to help.

The Department of Veterans Affairs launched a study last year of the influence dogs have on post-traumatic stress disorder. Guardian Angels Medical Service Dogs of Williston, Fla., is pairing more than 200 trained-for-the-individual dogs (many veterans also have injuries and missing limbs) that will be tracked to identify benefits.

“It’s so powerful to see these people, who had regarded themselves as a shell of what they used to be, get their dogs and take on life again,” says Guardian Angels founder Carol Borden.

Vietnam veteran Raymond Galmiche of Navarre, Fla., has battled PTSD for decades. His service dog, Dazzle, has done what years of therapy could not, he says. When Galmiche descends into flashbacks of carnage, the German shepherd licks and nudges to bring him back to the present. When nightmares hit, Dazzle wakes him, cutting off the descent before it goes too deep. Galmiche now isolates himself less; his war guilt is diminishing. “Dazzle has my back. He keeps me focused.”

It’s not overstatement to say these animals not only improve lives, they save lives.

Jennifer Arnold, founder of Canine Assistants of Alpharetta, Ga., has placed more than 1,000 specially trained dogs, mostly with people with mobility problems or seizures, since 1991. She speaks of a young woman with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) who requested a service dog in the 1990s. She got it, even though the life expectancy for people with ALS is usually two to five years from diagnosis. That was 16 years ago, and the woman now has her second service dog. “Dogs,” Arnold says, “can have an extraordinary impact, not all of which we completely understand.”

Says Shirk: “God gave us dogs for a reason. We have only begun to know a portion of it.”