Pet Points: Dogs add comfort level to autistic children



Our office recently adopted, Piper, a Labradoodle puppy who will be trained as a service dog to assist someone with autism. There are currently 12 dogs in training with Perfect Fit Canines, a local organization founded by a Wilkinsburg couple, and we will provide complimentary medical care for one.

One of the challenges Perfect Fit Canines (www.perfectfitcanines.org) faces is to enlist enough puppy raisers willing to raise and train puppies, who are 8 weeks old when they begin, and expose them to a variety of stimuli. Training takes up to two years of intensive work. A school teacher with autistic children in her class is the volunteer who is raising Piper.

Autism is not well understood by the general public. As dogs increase interaction with parents of autistic children, we will better understand the spectrum of autism. By training dogs for specific tasks, we see an excellent example of pet-assisted therapy. Oversight of the training is done by Jeff Woods at Misty Pines.

The ultimate goal of Perfect Fit Canines is to have a stand-alone breeding and training program and enough staff to provide sufficient dogs to meet demand. The cost of training can add up to $25,000. Families who need dogs contribute to the costs associated with training. However, the hope is that corporate sponsorship will be able to make obtaining a trained service dog more affordable.

The dogs will be used for children as young as 4 years old. These children can be highly intelligent but sometimes lack the ability to understand the danger of actions such as walking into traffic. The dogs are trained to comfort the children but also to keep them safe. One dog named Oliver is being trained to track a child who has been known to bolt from the family and become lost for up to eight hours at a time.

The work of training dogs to assist the autistic community brings special meaning to the human/companion animal bond. The bond between child and dogs are nonjudgmental and special. The executive director of the program relayed a story of a child who lacked the confidence to leave the house. The child, to the amazement of the family, went out to play after getting a dog at his side. With a dog, autistic children are often less frustrated and have more confidence.

Along with the ability to search for a child who strays, dogs can interrupt repetitive behavior, prevent a behavioral meltdown, distract unwanted behavior, promote speech and calm a child with a hug.

Lawrence Gerson is a veterinarian and founder of the Point Breeze Veterinary Clinic. His biweekly column is intended to educate pet owners. Consultation with a veterinarian is necessary to diagnose and treat individual pets. If you have a question you'd like addressed in Pet Points, email petpoints@post-gazette.com. Please include your name and municipality or neighborhood.




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