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Today, in some sections of the nation, citizens will be celebrating Kiss Your Mate Day, and Love a Teen Day, but as April showers are coming to an end, and with May flowers set to bloom, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that April is National Autism Awareness Month.  That got my brain wagging about service dogs, and the role they can play in helping young children with autism, and those with physical challenges.

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of meeting 14-year old Robbie Drescher, at a fund-raiser held on his behalf in Brick, New Jersey.  Robbie, who is not autistic,  is in a wheelchair due to a spinal injury that occurred last December.  I was told Robbie had just acquired a service dog named Parker.  Parker, a mixed-breed, was trained to be a Service Dog by two inmates in the Virginia Correctional System, through the PenPal Program.  When I asked Robbie about Parker, his eyes lit up and he told me that, “Parker is a good dog, he stays by my side, and doesn’t bark too much.”  According to Robbie’s mom, Sharon, the two are bonding well and they have promised to keep me posted on their developing friendship.  I will be writing about those inmates, too, and the PenPal Program soon, for a Newark Pets Examiner article.

But his got me thinking, also, about how Service Dogs can assist young people with autism.  And they do.  In 2002, Priscilla Taylor, a special education teacher and dog-lover founded the Autism Service Dogs of America (ASDA), a non-profit, community-based organization headquartered in Oregon that provides uniquely trained dogs to help children with autism and their families. 

Priscilla received her training through the Assistance Dog Institute, (ADI), the only academic institute dedicated to the advanced education and research in the time-less human canine relationship.  Through their program, offered through the Bergin University of Canine Studies, trainers and educators can enroll for undergrad and graduate programs that advance, and promote the knowledge of and the use of Service and Companion dogs.

Acquiring a service dog is no easy task.  The ASDA carefully screen dogs like Golden retrievers, and Labs, and then the arduous, but rewarding task of training, and pairing begins.  Children must be at least five years old to apply for one of these dogs, and the process of readying the dog to fit in with the child and their families can take approximately one year. 

These trained dogs are permitted to go everywhere with the child, including into the classroom.  There, the dog can help reduce emotional stress often experience by a student diagnosed with autism that can often lead to outbursts, and encourages the child to have more positive social interactions with others.

I have had the experience of working with young children diagnosed with autism and it can be a long, lonely day for them, and their overworked paraprofessionals, and teachers.  Although I have never witnessed a Service Dog working with one of these students, I would love to see how it is done, firsthand.  I think, under the right conditions, a loving, and attentive dog would be appreciated not just by the children, but by the staff employed to educate these students with special needs.

Please, if you know of young people who are benefitting from the use of a Service, or Companion Dog, please feel free to share their stories with me at pst39crd@aol.

You know I love that phrase about the timeless human canine relationship. With so many budget cutbacks, and layoffs in the Educational Sector, I am afraid that these positive contributions of  man’s best friend will once again be overshadowed by economic conditions.  Unfortunately, we as a nation, are dealing with similar conditions that existed when William Judy first  launched National Dog Week back in 1928.  By honoring National Dog Week the last week in September, even in small ways, we can keep the “promise of the dog,” alive and well.