Assistance dogs help with service, therapyWritten by Sarah Ottney | Managing Editor | firstname.lastname@example.org
An 8-year-old autistic boy whose behavior improved. A disabled 21-year-old able to live an independent college lifestyle. An elderly man rescued from a fall in the bathroom.
The common factor in each of these cases was a service or therapy dog trained by Assistance Dogs of America Inc. (ADAI) in Swanton.
There are hundreds of success stories like these, said Jan Brown, executive director of ADAI, which is what makes her job so rewarding.
For more than 20 years, ADAI has been training dogs to help children and adults with disabilities. Service dogs help those with mobility issues like spina bifida, multiple sclerosis, ALS or paralysis lead more independent lives, while therapy dogs are paired with those needing help with speech, coordination or social skills, such as people with autism, Down syndrome or stroke victims.
ADAI has placed more than 250 dogs with clients in Ohio, Michigan and Indiana, including 16 pairings this year. Therapy dogs can also be trained for placements in facilities like nursing homes or schools, an area ADAI is particularly known for.
In the case of the autistic 8-year-old, Brown said his parents report he is doing “unbelievable” since being paired with a therapy dog last year. The boy had been sleeping with his parents and resisting baths, but within days of getting the dog he was sleeping in his own bed with the dog and taking baths with the dog next to the tub.
“Parents tell us dogs are calming factors; it totally changed his ability to focus — he’d reach out and touch the dog and be able to focus,” Brown said. “We don’t really know what goes into autism, but often there is an inability to focus on one voice among all the other sounds and what happens is a dog allows a child to feel grounded. No one truly understands what happens when a dog is brought into the life of a person with a disability, but something happens to that person.”
Each assistance dog costs about $15,000 to train, Brown said, but clients are charged only an application and equipment fee totaling about $150. ADAI is funded completely by donations; it receives no government funding.
The dogs come from a variety of sources, including shelters, pounds and breeders. Most are Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers or mixes of the two breeds. The dogs are tested for friendliness, noise sensitivity, bonding ability, retrieving instincts, confidence, desire to please and general trainability, according to ADAI’s website.
Once accepted to the program, the training takes anywhere from six to 22 months. The dogs start training as early as 8 weeks old and are placed with their partners around 2 years of age.
After a year or more with a volunteer foster family, learning socialization and basic commands, the dogs come back to the training facility in Swanton for their final three months of training. At this stage, the dog is matched with a client and begins to learn specific skills its new owner will require. Finally, the new owner and dog come together for a two-week training program.
“The training is very extensive,” Brown said. “When the dogs leave here, they are just amazing animals.”
Since 2005, ADAI has also partnered with correctional institutes in Toledo and Cleveland through its innovative Prison Puppy Training Program. There are currently four puppies living with inmates and being trained inside Toledo Correctional Institute.
Brown said inmates are “wonderful trainers” and often benefit as much as the dogs. In addition to incentivizing exemplary behavior, which is required to be a trainer, programs have been shown to increase empathy and communication skills in prisoners. Inmates also learn marketable skills and at least one former inmate now earns a living training dogs, Brown said.
ADAI is always in need of volunteers, especially foster families, Brown said. For more information, visit the website www.adai.org or call (419) 825-3622.