New Leash on Life
New Leash on Life
Service Dogs Give Independence to Children with Disabilities
The family dog can wear many hats – running companion, watch dog, vacuum cleaner – but for families of a child with a disability, a dog can mean the difference between life and death. When Wendy Givens’ son Scooter was first diagnosed with autism, she knew there would be challenges ahead. At age two, Scooter was already running off, including in public places. Givens learned about autism service dogs and their ability to track children. She kept the idea in the back of her mind for when Scooter got older. Then when he was five the Oregon family was vacationing in Washington State when Scooter took off at an outdoor mall. By the time they found him he had crossed two streets and was playing in a toy store.
“We were frantic,” explains Givens, “and I decided right then that we needed to get a dog. We feel so strongly that Scooter needs to be out in public and to learn to deal with the public just as they have to learn to deal with him.”
Two years ago, at age seven, Scooter was matched with his dog Madison, who is trained in tracking like most autism service dogs. The dog is able to find Scooter should he disappear and he is also a calming force for Scooter when he gets upset. Out in public Scooter is tethered to Madison, so should he try to bolt, Madison plants himself and Scooter isn’t able to go anywhere.
“Scooter has not escaped one time since we brought Madison home,” says Givens, “We haven’t had to use the tracking, but it’s nice to know it’s there. And Scooter’s behavior changes with Madison. He’s calmer; he’s resigned to whatever we ask him to do. If he gets upset, Madison calms him down. We don’t go anywhere without the dog and we’re able to be a normal family.”
Halfway across the country in Ohio, Jackie Smolinski was going through a difficult diagnosis with her son. Luke had suffered his first of many seizures and he was just eight months old.
“It was a pretty terrifying day,” says Smolinski, “He woke up from a nap really irritable, moaning in a way I can’t even explain… He started seizing but I didn’t really know what it was. He was turning blue. I called 911 and by the time they got there Luke was coming out of it. When we got to the ER we were dismissed and they didn’t do any further testing. He had a slight fever so they considered it a febrile seizure.”
But Luke’s seizures kept coming and he was officially diagnosed with epilepsy. By the time he turned one he wasn’t meeting milestones and had even lost some language. Now, two years later, Luke has been diagnosed with 16 different conditions including partial trisomy 16 (chromosome 16 duplication), hypotonia (weak muscle tone), dysphasia (difficulty swallowing), and Celiac disease.
“A lot of the times he slept with us at night,” says Smolinski, “When he was in his room, we would video tape him at night and watch these videos of him seizing. It was awful knowing he was by himself going through that.”
Smolinski heard about seizure alert dogs and in October of 2009 the family went for the final training of their own dog and met Clarabelle. That first night, she alerted them to a seizure and since then has given over 30 alerts, allowing the family to get Luke to a safe spot ensuring he doesn’t fall and injure himself. Clarabelle goes to school with Luke and has alerted the teachers each time Luke was about to have a seizure, giving them time to remove him from the classroom.
“It’s amazing,” says Smolinski, “She nudges me when Luke is going to have a seizure. She’s like another person to take care of, but she has made life easier and brought a lot of benefits. She’s cool. She can save his life.”
4 Paws for Ability specializes in training a multitude of dogs for children. Besides seizure and autism dogs, there are mobility dogs that help children who are in wheelchairs or children with balance issues. There are hearing dogs, dogs for children with fetal alcohol syndrome, diabetic assistance dogs, and multi-purpose dogs for children who have more than one diagnosis. Many service dog organizations have a waiting list of a few years, but with 4 Paws, the family raises the $11,000-$15,000 it costs for a dog, cutting the wait time down to a matter of months.
“The two things we look for during the application process,” explains 4 Paws founder Karen Shirk, “are whether or not it’s safe to place for the dog due to behavioral problems on the child’s part, such as biting, and whether or not the family can afford to financially care for the dog.” In 2009 alone 4 Paws placed 106 dogs. They are currently fundraising to build a bigger facility so they don’t have to start a waiting list, something that is unacceptable to Shirk since a child can wander away and die while waiting for a dog.
In addition to helping care for the children, service dogs offer other benefits. They are loyal friends who are able to be with the children during medical procedures. They also act as a bridge to building friendships with other children and have brought about independence and increased self-esteem for children who have been so dependent on their parents in the past. These dogs bring new life to families.
“We have a little boy that we can take in public and to the park,” says Givens, “People don’t realize how huge that is when you have a child with a special need. We can sleep at night knowing that if he gets out we can find him. It was a constant worry that we just don’t have now. It’s a huge relief. That right there was completely worth getting the dog.”
Side note: Currently the Givens family is in a legal battle with their school district over allowing Madison into Scooter’s school. Under federal law, service dogs are allowed everywhere the child would go – restaurants, stores, and schools – however their school district has refused to budge despite proof that Madison helps Scooter to remain calm and avoid meltdowns especially when he is overcome by sensory stimulants that upset him.