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Hospital Scene Highlights Bond Between Service Dog, Autistic Child

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Although many of us are familiar with service dogs being used to help the blind, the military or even our local police force, one type of service dog is offering a much more personal service. Dogs trained to help autistic children.

For parents of children with autism, their child's unpredictability is often a daily struggle. And, although no two children are the same, service dogs paired successfully with autistic children are lessening this dilemma by influencing the child's behavior.

One story of a service dog assisting a disabled child became an Internet sensation when the dog, Mahe, accompanied a nine-year-old New Zealand boy, James, to the hospital showcasing the bond between James and his dog.

James' mother, Michelle Isaac, noted that,

"Mahe has changed our lives so much. He is a real part of the family now. The main thing he does is help to keep James safe and calm when he's out.”

As the mother explained James,

…has profound autism, so he gets quite anxious when we go on outings. He's very impulsive and he doesn't have any awareness of danger.”

When James, after having unexplained seizures, went to the hospital, Mahe proved an invaluable partner. The situation was an emotionally, nerve-racking event for the boy, who does not talk, but Mahe was up for the challenge. Before the boy's MRI, the service dog hopped into the hospital bed with James -- calming the child.

After James came out from under general anesthesia, the dog was, once again, by his side in the recovery room. Mahe

"…got his face really close to James, who was asleep by that point, and he reached in to sniff him. He looked really concerned. It was quite touching," James’ mother said.

Training The Dogs

Mahe is just one of many specially trained service dogs entering the homes of families with autistic children. These dogs, improve the child's life by everything from, interrupting meltdowns by leaning in, nudging or licking the child -- to ensuring safety by retrieving a child who is running away.

But often the greatest service these animals provide is being a much-needed, non-judgmental and helpful friend. These dogs have been instrumental in helping children improve their language skills as kids speak more freely with their dog.

For one family their service dog simply added to their son’s happiness.

“I don’t know if he likes her soft fur, or just the warmth or just the company of someone else, but they bonded almost instantaneously,” the McGillem family said.

Popular Breeds

Because of the specific needs of autistic children, only a handful of breeds are generally used. Breeds like Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, and Golden Retriever-Labrador Retriever crosses are the most common because of their easy-going temperament and their high intellectual level. These dogs learn more than 30 commands or behaviors.

Because the dogs are paired with children, often young children, the extensive – and intensive -- training can take as long as 18-24 months. Often the service dogs are provided at no cost to the recipient, but that does not mean they are free. Costs associated with these dogs ranges from $15,000 to $20,000 which is why some organizations require families to participate in fundraising efforts.

Volunteers Help

Another approach to driving down costs is using foster families to train the dogs. Besides reducing costs, since volunteers pay the expenses, this method also acclimates the service dog to a home environment. But, the method can be hard on volunteers since they develop a close relationship with the animal during the training.

But, for most it's about seeing the big picture. One couple who trains the dogs, noted,

“We know there’s a greater good out there for her (Cecile) and they told us the best way to get over giving up a pet is to get another one and we’ve talked to people who’ve done 14 or 15 of them."

It's a win-win for everyone.

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