Service dogs have recently become very popular with the autistic population. The dogs are beneficial as a form of therapy, and they can help autistic kids gain social skills. Autism service dogs are also known as "Ssig Dogs," (sensory or social signal dogs). To receive the full benefits of occupational and physical therapy and to be able to direct the dog, a child should be old enough (or mature enough) to walk, feed and clean up after the dog. Unlike typical service dog/owner relationships, autism dogs have a partnership with both the parent and the child and work with both, separately and together.
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What is a service dog?
A service dog (or other service animal such as a monkey or cat) has been specifically trained from infancy (and possibly even bred for certain traits) to help people with disabilities. For example, there are dogs that lead the blind; warn the deaf of sounds like doorbells, fire alarms and honking cars; and seizure dogs that can "sense" when a person is about to have a seizure. Some dogs are able to do more than one of these things.
Training a service dog
Training a service dog takes years and can be an ongoing process depending on your child's needs. The more steps a task requires to complete, the longer it takes to train the dog. Some dog are naturally better at herding and learn "finding" and "leading" tasks quickly, while other breeds have different natural skills. Because of the time spent training these dogs (you may even be able to pick out the puppy you want trained), there is often a long wait time, which can be from months to years. To qualify as a service animal, the dog must respond to commands 90 per cent of the time the first time the command is given, demonstrate basic obedience skills (sit, stay, lie down) and must be trained to perform at least three tasks to mitigate the owner's disability.
Benefits of service dogs
For people with autism, service dogs warn their owners of impending seizures, redirect meltdowns, and comfort and calm those with severe anxiety. They also help autistic owners realise when they are "stimming" (performing a self-stimulatory repetitive motion), which helps them gain control over the habit. Some children who have sensory sensitivity respond well to the deep pressure of the dog laying over them protectively and are able to control or redirect violent reactions better because of it. The dogs can also be trained to get help, draw attention to a name being called, help find a lost child and keep a child away from roads and dangers like running water and open drains.
What to do if you see a service dog
Service dogs are not pets; they are highly trained physical or therapeutic aids. Not all service dogs wear tags to identify them as such, although many do, but most owners will explain what they are. If the dog isn't wearing an ID tag, it will usually be wearing a backpack, harness or vest. You can also usually identify a service dog by its focused mannerism.
You should not pet, whistle at or call a service dog, because it is literally "on the job" while out with its companion and should not be distracted from provided its valuable and necessary service. Never feed a service dog (although providing water is fine if the dog seems dehydrated and the owner permits).
Where to find a service dog
You can train your own dog to be a service dog, but it takes a lot of time and effort. Most service dogs are very expensive, costing as much as £13,000. Luckily, there are numerous grants available to help parents defray the cost. North Star Foundation is based out of Connecticut and specialise in children with autism. Autism Service Dogs of America is based in Oregon and takes an average of 12 months to train each dog for a specific child. Project Chance in Florida trains golden retrievers bred specifically for certain traits to be autism support dogs. See the Resources section for links.
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