Dogs have been trained to assist people is all walks of life for decades and beyond. This is not a new concept.

Some brief description of the more well known types of service dogs are:

  • Guide Dogs – they assist blind or sight impaired persons by guiding them safely around obstacles, through traffic and sidewalks, up and down stairs, etc.
  • Hearing Dog – they alert the hearing impaired to sounds such as the phone, doorbell, microwave, alarms, etc.
  • Mobility Assist Dog – they can do such things as pull a wheelchair, carry things in a specially designed backpack, pick up items and open and close doors
  • Seizure Alert Dogs – these dogs are trained to help when their handler has a seizure by staying with them or going for help as need be. Many are trained to call 911 for assistance through an already set up system. Many of these dogs can even alert their handler or help when a seizure is coming on due to the fact that they can sense the chemical changes.

And then there are the Ssig Dogs, dogs trained to work with autistic partners.

How do service dogs help children with autism? Service dogs for autism assist children in several ways: Service dogs provide the child/adult challenged with autism an opportunity to safely access different environments which result in improved communication and social skills. The autism service dog’s presence offers a calming influence and provides a sense of security to the child and the parents. Abstract and concrete thinking advance, focus improves, and the length of attention span increases. Emotional outbursts occur less often. The important role of an autism service dog is affording the individual more independence and autonomy, helping those individuals become a viable part of the community at large. Here’s the story of how one child’s life was changed by one of these incredible dog heros! From the Star Tribune

Service dog makes a big difference in autistic boy’s life

It was a Tuesday evening in late March at Glynner’s Pub. Brad and Joanie Trahan were settling their family into their usual table when their middle son, Reece, who has severe autism, began to whine and flail his arms.

“Don’t bite, Reecey,” his dad, Brad, intoned, once again stopping his son from nervously biting himself on his bruised forearms.

During dinner, Reece, nearly 7, kept his father busy. First he darted toward a heaping nacho plate at a nearby table; Brad intercepted him just in time. Later, Reece stacked and unstacked cups, moving Brad’s hand to help him with his cup, taking a sip, putting it down, asking for more. Brad patiently did the tasks his son set for him. It looked exhausting.

That was before the arrival of Pudge, a black Labrador who began living with the Trahans in March after a 21/2-year wait.

The idea of using service dogs to aid autistic kids is relatively new. National Service Dogs of Kitchener, Ontario, first experimented with the pairing 11 years ago and has placed about 125 dogs, only two of them in the United States. NSD also is one of the few service dog providers that specializes in training dogs for kids with autism.

Service dogs make autistic children safer, can help them interact socially and can reduce some parental stress if families go into the relationship with realistic expectations, said Kristen Burrows, a researcher from the Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph.

Reece’s autism was diagnosed in January 2003, three months before his third birthday. He doesn’t speak. He wears a diaper. He moves constantly, his hands working beads, phone cords, bouncy balls and other favorite objects. He has a limited ability to interact with people, even his family. His behavior has been unpredictable. Crowds, loud noises and transitions agitate him.

In April, the Trahans again went to Glynner’s for dinner — this time with Pudge. Reece was agitated. He pressed his thumbs up into his earlobes and swayed, whining. He resisted Brad’s attempts to reassure him. Brad hooked the tether that Reece wears on his belt to Pudge’s vest.

Reece resisted, wrenching at the 5-foot tether and pulling it taut. Pudge lay still as the sphinx, stopping Reece from darting across the restaurant. After a minute, Reece gave up. Then he stepped over his dog to the table and calmly began to sip at a glass of water.

He went on to feed himself and play quietly as his parents chatted over a leisurely dinner. A first.

A miracle dog arrives

On March 31, the Trahans, including Brad’s parents, traveled to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport in a limousine, courtesy of a family friend, to pick up Brad and the dog. Brad’s flight was delayed; the family loitered around the baggage carousel until … Brenden, 8, bellowed “DAD!” and broke into a sprint, with Payton, 3, at his heels.

Both kids leaped into their dad’s arms; he staggered up the hall, with a child on each arm while leading a handsome black dog in a purple work vest. Back with his mother, Reece giggled and skipped at the sight of his father, and sneaked sidelong glances at the dog.

“Reecey, c’mere, bud,” Brad said, taking Reece’s hand and pulling him to the reclining Pudge. “You’d better get used to him. You’re gonna like him, aren’t you?”

Reece giggled.

“Reecey, can you pet Pudge?” Brad urged. “I know you hear me. Pet him.”

Reece’s hand hovered a moment over the dog’s black head, then pulled back. The other family members moved in, patting and cooing over Pudge, who rolled over for a belly scratch.

“You’re a miracle dog, aren’t you?” remarked Gene Trahan, Brad’s father.

After several shy attempts, Reece leaned in and put a hand on Pudge’s head for a moment, before snatching it away. Instead, he nudged the dog’s paw with his toe and giggled again.

That night in bed, Pudge curled up at Reece’s feet. For the first time in nearly seven years, Reece slept the whole night through in his own bed.

Real connections

Over the first couple of weeks, the Trahans acclimated to having a dog in the house, and Pudge slowly got to know his charge. Brad and Joanie noticed small changes in Reece’s behavior. He continued to sleep through the night. He was more likely to hang out with the family in the evenings, rather than hole up in Brenden’s room with his toys and Barney videos. He started to eat dinner at the table with the family.

On walks around the neighborhood, Brenden and Payton held the handle on Pudge’s vest, to help him practice for Reece’s first hookup.

The big day would come on a snowy April afternoon when NSD trainer and co-founder Chris Fowler came to inspect Pudge’s living conditions, test Brad’s training, assess Reece’s developing connection to his dog, and finally connect them.

In the driveway, Brad hooked the tether onto the D-ring on Pudge’s harness. Brad took the leash and guided Pudge onto the sidewalk. Reece giggled and minced along on his tiptoes, a picture book in one hand and his white and blue phone coil-cords in the other. Fowler, Brenden and Payton hovered behind. Joanie beamed for a moment from the front door before grabbing her jacket and joining the parade down Colleen Street.

Fowler and Brad called out encouraging words:

“Good boy, Pudge.””Good job, Reece, good job.”

Pudge halted at the corner. Reece stopped at his side and looked around expectantly. When Brad called “Forward, Pudge,” boy and dog continued across the street.

Looking for guidance

Now, Reece seems to look to Pudge for guidance. When they’re not together, Reece looks around on the floor for his dog. The biting and the frustration have all but ceased when Pudge is with Reece in public.

“He just seems to know that Pudge is there,” Brad said, “and he knows when Pudge goes, he’s got to go, too. It’s like he and Pudge are communicating that to each other.”

On June 10, the Trahan family will go to the Metrodome for Autism Awareness Day with the Minnesota Twins.

“Last year we were fearful,” Brad said. “This year we’re going to go with a lot more confidence because Pudge is going to be with us.”

To find out more about service and Ssig Dogs, please visit the following:

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