Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Commentary: Schools and Service Dogs

Recently there has been a lot of chatter on the Internet over young children with Autism and the burgeoning movement partner them with dogs. Whether these dogs meet the definition of Service Dogs as defined under the ADA is at question as well as many other issues in the news.
Some things that concern me about the cases currently in the headlines and I think could add to the discussion:
  • Immature dogs being placed with children.In one high profile case from the news accounts the dog in question  is less than a year old.
  • No apparent preparation work going into: the child having a dog and preparing the staff expected to work  with said child and dog based on news paper accounts. 
  • No discussion of how the dog will be looked after and cared in early articles for since the children in question are incapable of doing it.
  • The constant comparison of the dogs place with these children to people with guides for the blind. The simple fact is many of these programs say in articles they get dogs that washed out of other programs because they were unsuitable for full service dog placement. Some people seem to think if we were talking about a blind child and a guide the whole thing would be a non-issue.This is simply not true, in my opinion. For one thing a young child would not have the orientation and mobility skills required of a blind person before they can even be consider for partnering with a guide dog. The youngest person to ever partner with a full guide  dog in the world was 11 when he did it. Still most guide programs require applicant to be at least 16 and those are accepted on a case by case basis.I'm sure everyone can agree for most children there's a huge difference between 11 and 5.
  • The backward application of the umbilical leash technique.Trainers spend years teaching dogs people are not paper weights to be dragged around at will and that being with humans is great.Yet with these some of placements the children often cannot give the dog warning it is about to move and may be prone to violent tantrums which the dog can't get away from and possibly could be injured by. I just don't see how this can end well for the dogs or children, in my opinion. (see comments for a program's views).
  • The Social Ice breaker. Dogs only work as a limited social ice breaker. In my experience, the person must be taught how to recognize use those initial interactions because of the dog to have deeper interactions or as soon as the fascination of the dog wears of the person is isolated from other humans just as before. It is just as likely (not too mention a poor substitute) that any and all interactions the person has are always about the dog --never moving on to get to know the person who brought the dog.
  • How do Children Cope in situations where it is truly not safe or appropriate for the dog to accompany them? We all know service dogs are great but  there are dogs and there are limits on where they can and or should go. Who is teaching these children how to cope when they can't bring the dog? If this is not done the child's world will once again be limited. Furthermore, dogs are living beings who get hurt,sick, and need to retire. Will children miss days or weeks of school because the dog is out of commission? 
This article was updated 8/27/09.


Erin and the Furry Troops said...

I'd thought I'd comment, because these are some of the things I used to think as well before I became one of these dogs trainers.

The children are in no ways in charge of the team at any time.
The family is to either go with the child to school,or "hire"/assign someone to accompany the dog and child around the class room. We have the families make sure they keep supplies such as extra food, clean up supplies, toys available for the dog at all times.
If the child is having an extremely violent tantrum the dog is removed from the situation ASAP. Though from the onset we are "pounding" into these kids that they are too NEVER hit their animals. You'd be surprised but they do understand this.
Another thing the parent is leading the dog,and child, so can help the dog if the child does move violently to counter balances as well as move the dog to a position that will not have the dog dragging the child.

As far as the child coping. They do, as well as anyone would I suppose.

Anyways I hope this answers your questions some!

I used to have doubts about autism service dogs, but that is before I saw what a great effect and chance they gave these kids to lead "normal" lives. :)

Erin and the Furry Troops said...

Also check out this blog:!

Melissa Mitchell said...

Dear Erin,
Thanks for your comment. I see you are involved with one of the schools working with one of the families in question. I do have some questions regarding your comment please bear with me.
1. How does having an adult all the time allowing the child independence? What happens when these children get a little older and it is no longer age appropriate to have an adult following them around?
2. Why would a fully trained service dog need food and toys while working? I have had two service dogs myself and know dozens of other people partnered with service dogs and none of them carry food or toys for their dog while it is working.
4. If you look at my blog links to the right I have Charlie's blog right on top. I am all for service dogs in the right setting that is safe for everyone including the dog. I can't understand how having a dog who is less than a year old working under such demanding conditions is fair to the dog who in truth is still a puppy and has much maturing to go is doing the dog any favors.

mariahleadme said...

If the family goes to the school with the child or "hires" someone to do it-----then that pretty much negates the purpose of the dog being there, doesnt it? I mean, if the person is there, they can be the anchor that keeps the kid from running off, not the dog. If the tantrum is so severe that the dog may be injured, why is it there to begin with?

If the parent has to be a "back up" for the dog and is the one actually handling the dog and the parent does not have a disability that the dog mitigates, then legally, the dog is no longer a service dog, just an animated "teddy bear" for the child.

While these dogs may have a theraputic benefit for the child at home, they should not be in schools or have public access unless the child is able to properly handle and care for the dog. If the child is not in charge of the team, then that does not meet the legal definition of what a service dog team is.

I cannot stroll into WalMart with my wifes Guide dog simply because it is a trained service dog----I must be the one who is disabled and the dog must be trained for my disability----not someone else in my family.

Kirsten said...

Awesome article, Melissa! You've articulated my own concerns quite well.

We can't know for sure how much the answers to these important questions are being left out of sensational news articles because of the writer's own biases about what interests readers. However, I firmly believe that in at least some cases it is because they are dealing with fly-by-night agencies that are making money with high cost dogs that are little more than glorified pets and little or no thought about the consequences and risks. When we see video clips of dogs who just wander around, dragging a child with them, it's natural to conclude it's because it's yet another ill-conceived, ultra expensive, disaster in waiting.

If there are legitimate programs making producing these sorts of teams, why aren't they at the forefront whistle-blowing the bad programs that are damaging their reputations?

Melissa Mitchell said...

Dear Mariah and Me,
excellent points about who the dog is working for and the current standard.

Melissa Mitchell said...

Dear Kirsten,
I too and deeply concern that these families are being taken advantage of in some cases and not being provided the necessary follow up support and training. I also worry that the dogs that are being trained and placed poorly overshadow the small number of quality child placements of the years. Children go through a lot of developmental changes very quickly and if the team does not have the proper support the dog could become more of a hindrance than help at some point.

Erin and the Furry Troops said...

Your questions are those a friend of mine had a couple of years ago. Then I couldn't I can.

1.The families we deal with, the child hasn't been able to go out with their family for years. They can't go to church, shopping, normal family things. They are left at home with a sitter, while they're family is going and doing things. That is not fair to the child at all, because he/she is still a human, but the stimulation and disruption of going into a new environment causes almost a ginormous panic attack. (lets just say) They dog provides stability, without the pressure of the parents bring (through trying to communicate physically and verbally) we've had families who haven't taken their child out for three years, go all over town with their new service dog, and gives them an opportunity to be a "normal" family again.
2. Well that's personal preference I suppose ;) No they don't NEED it. I'm just saying.
Someone else commented about parents being the back up...well I don't think we normally send 5 year olds out by themselves? ::grins::

Another thing is, the child at home is fine, that is where they are used to, they don't need the dog for at home. Same with blind people etc..whats the point of having a guide if you don't go anywhere?
Its the public that causes the child the most stress.

Our website can fill you in on other things our dogs actually do:

When you see the families and child realize the freedom they now have....its amazing.

Anyways I hope this helps!! Please feel free to ask more!! The more information we can get out the better!!

Erin and the Furry Troops said...

Oops I forgot a question! My Bad!

Wilderwood dogs are placed around 12 months old and above. I can't speak for other orgs, as ..... yes anyways. lol!

Our plan is to began placing older dogs with our kids/people.

Kirsten said...

The point is that 5 year olds don't need independence. A service dog can't give them that because they are still dependent on their parents. Saying a service dog gives the PWD independence is legitimate in reference to an adult, not a 5-year-old. So what do they really give? Sounds like emotional support. I think that's why so many cling to the idea of tethering despite the fact it is inherently dangerous. It's something other than emotional support they can claim as a task in order to justify an emotional support animal as a service animal.

I'm not personally opposed to emotional support animals in public access, provided they are temperamentally suitable and appropriately trained. But that's not what the current law is.

12 months isn't nearly long enough to fully train a service dog. It typically takes 18-24 months. At 12 months they're still puppies, still growing. They can't even have all their health clearances done by 12 months. What a shame to become attached to a dog that has to retire early because of illness. What happens to a child whose dog turns up dysplastic just a year into service? Are the other clearances done? Cardiac, thyroid, CERF?

My youngsters perform tasks at six months, but I wouldn't put my own life (much less a child's) in their hands until they are mentally and physically mature. Proofing and generalization take the bulk of service dog training, and both of those require a certain level of maturity for the dog to even process.

Erin and the Furry Troops said...

Hi Kristen,
You are correct about a 5 year vs. Independence. I probably should have worded it, as gives them a chance at a normal life.
There is a lot these dogs do besides just be there.These dogs are trained to interrupt:Self Harming,Self Stimulation,Impulsive Running,PICA, just to name a few. We train for the individual.

As far as the age goes.....I have no comment because I have no information on the specifics. I just know what I have seen, and the happiness and joy on the families have when the realize they don't have to exclude their child.

Erin and the Furry Troops said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
bj2circeleb said...

How does the dog help with social interaction at school. Kids are only interested in dogs they can pet and play with. Further the child is with the dog all the time as they are tethered. During breaks, etc the parent is going to have to take the dog out to potty it, etc. How does the child cope then. Other children are not going to come along for the ride to watch?? The child is taken away from other children at the one time when it can socially interact with them. And it will take time, as the dog cannot simply be taken just outside the main door, but would need to be take off the shool property and ot out of way places. I know it takes me quite a while to potty Brooke at college as the only suitable spots are not near anything that is going on. Further after a while kids get very board of new things and will get bored of the new doggy. What happens for the child's social skills then????

Any decent guide, hearing and service dog program suggests that people build up to full days of work with their dogs and yet in these cases they are expecting dogs under 12 months of age, which have not even finished growing yet to be in a school and even a preschool of all places. As for needing to take food and toys for the dog I am mortified by the need. Trained dogs do not need such things. Where do they propose a dog stay in a preschool. This is not like school where a child has their own desk for most of the day, etc. These children move around the room every 5 minutes or so. And given that the dog and child are tied together this means that the dog is being expected to move every five minutes. How does any dog, let alone one under 12 months of age do that for 7-8 hours everyday. Most guide and service dogs nap for much of the day and yet this dog is expected to move constantly for 7-8 hours. Is that really realistic????

All dogs no matter how well trained can break training all the time. We are being told that these children are never tethered without a parent holding the leash and yet in every single picture of these dogs there is never a parent holding the leash. Even in the most recent one the child is tied to the dog and no one is holding a leash. What happens if the child or dog decides to bolt, the other gets dragged along for the ride. Further any dog can rip a lead out of any persons hand and if the child is tied to the dog then how safe can they be if the dog rip the lead out of a parents hand.

We are told the dog will be removed if the child starts acting up. The most common place for that to happen is in a shopping centre. Are we now being told that when these dogs and children are most at harms way they are removed from each other, so the child can bolt if needed??? What is the purpose of the dog if it is not to keep the child tethered and/or for the dog to help to calm the child down. Now we are being told the dog is removed, and yet the whole reason this child needs this dog at school is because he needs the dog to calm him down.

bj2circeleb said...

If the child in the blog is truely autistic then what does the dog do for him. The program that placed this dog placed it as a tether dog, as the child apparently bolted. Yet all over the site we have pictures of this kid just walking around handling the dog himself. Yet the programs only follow up is with the mother to ensure that she is handling the dog appropraitley in public places. I would love to know what this dog does for this child??? If people are going to constantly refer to a blog as a great example of a team then please do so with a dog that is doing something more than being a publicity stunt for a child. The aim of any service dog is not to be make the person the centre of attention and I fail to see how such a thing is truely helpful for someone who cannot hanlde such situations in the first place.

As for the programs requiring parents to handle the dogs. Why do they then insist on charging families over $1,500 for the program to come out and teach the teahers how to command the dogs and what the dogs commands are. Why do schools need to know such things if the parents are always there. Further, why don't they say such things on the programs websites as to what the criteria are for having these dogs. All of the programs insist on the dog going to school with the child and will not place a dog unless it attends school with the child and yet I have never seen it saying that parents will have to be there to handle the dog, and/or hire someone else to do it. Parents of these dog also are very adament that it is not there job to handle the dog at school and that teachers and aides will be trained in how to handle the dog.

How can the dog be safe if the dog sleeps in the child's bedroom. We are told the dog and kid are never alone, yet they are. We are also told that the kids can learn and do learn not to hit the dog and yet they cannot learn not to hit thier parents?????

Will any of these autism service dog programs actually begin to answer peoples quesions instead of just saying how great these dogs are. Guide dog programs are more than willing to answer peoples questions and to alleviate their concerns and yet these programs behave more like politicans and ignore the quesitons being answered and instead just go on and on about how great the dogs are, even though anyone with any knowledge of both child development, autism and dog behaviour, training and psychology would say that they are setting up a situation that is cruel to both the child and the dog.

I would love to know how they claim these dogs disrupt a child with PICA. A child with this condition picks up absolutely anything in site and to say that a dog is going to take everything they ever pick up out of their hands is crazy. I would also love to know how these dogs can be trained to do all of these things when they are being placed at 12 months or less. As for stopping a child runing off, you could do that in a much safer way by tying the child to the parent.

Are any of these programs truely willing to come to the party and answer these questions. You will not comment on age as you do not know enough about it, yet you are the one who supposedly trains the dogs!!!!! How can you be a service dog trainer and yet not know anything about dog development, and dog psychology

Melissa Mitchell said...

Dear all,
I have been doing some research and talking to parents. Based what I now understand these dogs are not service dogs as currently defined under the ADA. Maybe they are really in their own category as an educational tool for the child to as Erin said to provide non human stabilizing influence that is is not constantly making stressful things happen. Furthermore maybe that category need to be further defined in the industry. I grew up around kids on the Autism spectrum and now have friend with Aspergers, I know it is a little understood category of disability.
I would like to ask Erin,since the dogs are placed at a year and a lot of developmental changes happen for dogs between a year and two years old,what kind of follow up and additional training/support the clients receive when they go home. I tried the wildwood website and when I clicked on tasks I was disappointed to be directed to an outside website. As a former kids with a disability who only found out about service dogs when almost ready to graduate high school, I am always interested in things that will help kids mitigate disability and have quality lives. I had the pleasure one of Meeting the founder of North Star and have been following their teams and work with interest for several years.

Erin and the Furry Troops said...

Hi Melissa The president of our school is in contact with them after a month, and meets with them again after a year. And of course will go out and do any follow up as needed.

Erin and the Furry Troops said...

To bj2circeleb: I'm not answering FOR the school, but as an individual that has worked with these families and dogs. I won't make up an answers and give out false information.

I am sorry that what I've said hasn't answered your questions.

So I encourage you to visit some website and emails theses schools with their questions, so you can get answers directly from the school itself to find out if they are indeed willing to "come to the party".

Melissa Mitchell said...

Dear Erin,
Thank you for continuing to respond this discussion. I am glad hear about the follow up.

bj2circeleb said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
bj2circeleb said...

I and the other people who posted questions on this site, as well as a few other people that I know have all contacted each and every autism tehter dog program that we can possibly find. We are all very concerned about these children and the safety of the children and dogs. Not one of these programs has been willing to answer any of our questions and of those that have responded all have done so incredibly rudely and simply accuse us of not seeing the postives of these dogs. The simple reailty is that these children are left alone with these dogs and all dogs given enough provocation can and will bite. You say the kids understand not to hit the dog, and yet these same kids cannot understand and learn not to hit their parents. This simply does not add up to me and others that I know. My response was not directed at you but to all the programs out there and I have read there websites as have the others and we have contacted them in a very polite manner and simply asking our questions and none of them will answer them. I am entitled as are others to questions when and if ever these programs are willing to answer these questions. You yourself did state that you are a trainer for a program, and one would think that a trainer of all people should be able to answer these questions and one would think more than an administrative person answering emails??